Hellraiser

TAD WILLIAMS is primarily a novelist, know for such bestselling fantasy and science-fiction books as TAILCHASER'S SONG, WAR OF THE FLOWERS, and the multivolume stories MEMORY, SORROW, AND THORN, the SHADOWMARCH books, and OTHERLAND. He's also writing all-ages fiction
-- the ORDINARY FARM books -- with his wife Deborah Beale. They live in a friendly but chaotic house in the San Francisco Bay Area with their two extremely well-behaved children and an army of very wicked pets. You can find out more about Tad at his website, on Facebook or via his wife Deborah's Twitter feed, at #mrstad.

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“Up From the Skies” was rattling the windows. Sammy never played Hendrix at less than concert volume, no matter the hour, whether his parents were home or not. It was one of the things Pogo admired about him.

“Church,” Sammy said, and took another hit on the bong. He puffed out his cheeks like a trumpet player, trying to hold in a cough.

“Yeah. Man was God.” Pogo nodded. “Is God.” He started to reach for the bong but decided that too much dope would interfere with the rush when the acid hit.

“You know he’d hate it now,” Sammy said. “All this shit. Gerald Ford. Hardly any acid. Disco.” He waved his hand in a loose-wristed gesture that summed up and dismissed the entire decade of the Seventies to this halfway point. “He’d be bummed.”

“Fuckin’ A.” Pogo flopped back into the beanbag chair and contemplated the decor of Sammy’s room. Roger Dean album covers, an M.C. Escher drawing with self-absorbing chameleons, and three different portraits of Jimi Hendrix were thumbtacked to the walls. Behind the pictures those walls and the entire ceiling had been painted black and covered with whirlpools of white stars -- the artistic end-product of a weekend’s speedathon. The northwest-corner stars were little more than blobs. Sunday afternoon, Pogo remembered, when they started to come down.

It was a cool look, he thought. Like floating in outer space, but with posters.

As he watched, the stars shimmered slightly and the sable field behind them seemed to recede.

“Man! You feeling it?”

Sammy nodded. “Gettin’ buzzy.” He leafed through his sideways stack of records, motor-coordination already starting to short-circuit. “Dark Side of the Moon. Sick of it. Surrealistic Pillow? That’s pretty trippy. ‘Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall . . .’, ” he sang in the familiar -- and tuneless -- Key of Sammy. He stared at the cover, then dropped it back and riffled further. “How about Close to the Edge?”

“Nah. More Hendrix. Electric Ladyland.”

Sammy tried to stand up, laughed, and crawled to the turntable. As the needle came down on the wrenching wah-wah of “Voodoo Chile”, Pogo smiled a tiny smile. He needed the Hendrix right now. Jimi was a friend, in a way no one he had ever met in real life could be. Jimi was . . . well, maybe not God exactly, but . . . something. Something. He raised his eyes to the picture over Sammy’s bed. The Man, flanked by his Experience -- black Jesus and two pasty thieves, all wearing haloes of frizzy hair. Hendrix was smiling that little half-smile, that you can’t judge me brother until you’ve been where I’ve been smirk. And his eyes . . . Jimi . . . he knew.

“Whoah,” Sammy whispered from somewhere nearby. The room was getting dark, as though the sun was setting, but Pogo felt fairly sure it was still early afternoon, the summer twilight hours away.

“Yeah.” He chuckled, although nothing was funny yet. Hendrix was watching him. “Here comes the rush.”

And as the stars reached out for him -- Laughing Sam’s Dice, Pogo thought, that one’s all about stars and acid, Jimi was hip to stars -- he felt himself drifting like a rudderless boat in a sea of pack ice. Something was pulling at his mind, something he wanted to articulate and share.

“Sammy, check it out. Hendrix, man . . .” The thought was elusive but he knew it was important. “Like, the stars, man -- he was saying that the stars are playing dice with the world, man, with the whole universe. And that when you take acid, the acid . . . it takes you out there. Where the dice are rolling.”

If Sammy replied, Pogo couldn’t hear him. He couldn’t see him either. The bright stars were burning before his eyes and the interstitial blackness was empty beyond imagining. Pogo felt himself sliding forward, pulled as though by slow, slow gravity.

This is some really fucking good shit, he thought, then he plunged into a silent white bonfire.

LI#

It was black -- no, more than black. It was negative black, an absence of illumination so complete that even the memory of light was tainted.

That movie about Jimi’s life, Pogo remembered, and was relieved to have at least his own thoughts for company. That guy said Hendrix was somewhere between sleep and death, and he just chose a different trip -- just floated on out. Did that happen to me? Am I dead?

He had a dim inner vision of himself, Pogo Cashman, lying on Sammy’s floor. Would there be ambulance men? Sammy’s parents? But Sammy wouldn’t even come down for hours, so it might be hours until he noticed his friend was dead.

In a strangely unworried way, Pogo hoped Sammy wouldn’t find him during the teeth-grinding, gray, post-trip state. That would bum him out for a long time, and Sammy was a good guy.

Jesus, it was dark. And silent. And empty.

So am I dead? Because if it’s gonna be like this for eternity, it’s really boring.

What if he had just gone blind and deaf? That would be more in line with the horror-stories about bad acid trips he’d heard. But that would almost as fucked as being dead. No tunes, no movies. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to go to school. Maybe he could learn to play pinball, like in Tommy.

As he seriously contemplated for the first time what entertainment the sport of pinball might provide to the hearing- and vision-impaired, the darkness was effaced by a dim smear of light.

Coming down, he thought with some relief. Maybe I should have smoked some of that Colombian and cut the rush a little. This shit is pretty intense…

The light bloomed, shimmered, then stabilized in a pattern of concentric rings. Several moments passed before he recognized what he was seeing. He stood in a long stone corridor, like something out of a Dracula movie -- torches in brackets, moss-bearded walls, puddles of water throwing back ghostlight from the torch flames. It was a long tunnel, winding away out of his sight some hundred yards ahead.

What the fuck . . . ?

Pogo looked down and was relieved to find his very own body still attached to him, unchanged since Sammy’s room -- desert boots, patched Levis, his black Lou Reed shirt covering the merest beginning of a hard-won beergut.

So when you die, you get to keep your Lou Reed t-shirt. Mysterious and weird are the ways of God…or whatever they say.

But the longer he stood on this spot, the more restless he felt. Something was calling him -- no, not calling, but drawing him, as a cool breeze might summon him to a window on a hot day. Tickling at his thoughts. Something lay ahead of him, down the corridor. Somebody there wanted him -- was calling to him. Somebody . . .

Hendrix. The thought was electrifying. I was thinking about Jimi. It must be him -- like his spirit or something. He’s got a message for humankind. And I’ll be his messenger.

He hurried down the corridor, absently noting that, just as in the Dracula movies, his footfalls echoed unpleasantly and small furry things scuttled out of his path, vanishing into the shadows.

If I’m gonna be his messenger, he’ll have to teach me how to play guitar like him. So I can make people listen. I’ll take Jimi’s message all over the world, and I’ll jam with Page and Clapton and all those guys.

He entertained a vision of Jeff Beck shaking hair out of his eyes and saying, “Fuckin’ ‘ell, Pogo, you really make that axe sing -- Jimi chose the right cat,” as they stood basking in rapturous applause on the stage at Wembley (or one of those other big English places), both of them covered in manly jam-sweat.

Pete Townsend suddenly appeared beside them, his whippet face screwed up with anxiety. “You said you’d get high with me, Pogo, and tell me about Jimi. You promised.”

Beck’s angry, proprietorial reply was interrupted by a squeak and crunch. Pogo looked down to discover he had trodden on one of the furry scuttlers. In the torchlight he could see it wasn’t a rat, but the bloody mess on his bootsole was not amenable to a more precise identification.

Jeff and Pete and the rest did not return, but that scarcely mattered: Pogo’s thoughts were quite taken up with what stood before him.

The black iron door stood flush with the wall of the corridor, taller than Pogo and covered with bumpy designs -- writhing demons and monsters, he saw when he leaned closer. It was quite solid beneath his hands, and quite immovable. Yet the feeling of being needed pressed him even more strongly, and he had no doubt that its source lay on the other side.

“Anybody in there?” he called, but even with his ear at the keyhole he heard no reply. He stepped back, looking for a crowbar or other heavy instrument (or even better, a spare key), but except for the torches and the scuttlers, which seemed more numerous now, the corridor was empty.

Pogo felt inexplicably certain that Jimi Hendrix himself stood on the far side, with a message just for him from beyond the grave. And free guitar lessons thrown in. The situation was weird enough already that a simple locked door couldn’t stop him -- could it?

“When logic and proportion, have fallen sloppy dead…”

The tune had been running through his head off and on since Sammy had sort-of sung it, but now the words of the old Airplane drug song seemed peculiarly appropriate. Down a hole, like Alice in Wonderland, caught in a bad acid trip. What did Alice do? For a little girl who’d probably never heard of Owsley or Haight-Ashbury (Pogo had the dim idea the original book had been written a long time ago, like around World War One or Two) she’d always seemed to get through all right. Of course she’d had magic cookies and stuff, which made her . . .

… shrink…

Suddenly, the door was getting bigger. The keyhole was several feet above his head and climbing. At the same time, water was rising around his knees. And the walls were getting farther and farther away . . .

Holy shit! I’m shrinking! Bitchin’!

If he could stop the process at some point, that was. If not, it might become a bummer of major proportions.

As the crack at the bottom of the door rose up past him -- the black iron portal itself now loomed as large as the Chrysler Building -- Pogo waded through the puddle beneath it, making a face as the scummy water sloshed around his chest. Once the broad expanse of door was past, he floundered out of the bilge onto a spit of muddy dirt and thought very hard about growing. When it worked, he was almost as surprised as the first time.

His surroundings drew down around him like a film run in reverse, the walls shrinking like a sweater-sleeve washed in hot water. When the process slowed and then halted, Pogo ran his hands over himself to make sure everything had returned to its correct size -- he briefly wondered if he could enlarge just selected parts of his body as well, which might help him finally get some chicks -- and then looked around.

There was only one torch here, fighting hard against the dank air; the wide room was mostly sunk in shadows. A few clumps of muddy straw lay on the floor; out of them, like Easter eggs in plastic grass nests, peeped skulls and other bits of human bone.

Pogo could tell a bad scene when he saw one. “Whooo,” he said respectfully. “Torture chamber. Grim, man.”

As if in response, something rattled in the shadows at the far side of the chamber. Pogo squinted but could see nothing. He slid the torch out of the bracket and moved closer. The feeling of being summoned was stronger than before, although in no way unpleasant. His heart beat faster as he saw a shape against the wall . . . a human shape. Jimi, the Man himself, the Electric Gypsy -- it must be! He had summoned Pogo Cashman across time and space and all kinds of other shit. He had…he had…

He had the wrong color skin, for one thing.

The man hanging in chains against the stone wall was white -- not just Caucasian, but without pigment, as white as Casper the Friendly Ghost. Even his long hair was as colorless as milk or new snow. He did wear a strange, rockstar-ish assortment of rags and tatters, but his eyes, staring from darkened sockets, were ruby red. It was not Hendrix at all, Pogo realized. It was . . .

“…Johnny Winter?”

The pale man blinked. “Arioch. You have come at last.”

He didn’t sound like Johnny Winter, Pogo reflected. The blues guitarist was from Texas, and this guy sounded more like Peter Cushing or one of those other guys in the old Hammer horror movies. But he wasn’t speaking English, either, which was the weirdest thing. Pogo could understand him perfectly well, but a part of his brain could hear words that not only weren’t English, they didn’t even sound human.

“Do not torment me with silence, my Lord,” the white-faced man cried. “I am willing to strike a bargain for my freedom. I will happily give you the blood and souls of those who have prisoned me here, for a start.”

Pogo goggled, still confused by the dual-language trick.

“Arioch!” The pale man struggled helplessly against his chains, then slumped. “Ah, I see you are in a playful mood. The length of time you took to respond and the bizarre shape you have assumed should have warned me. Please, Lord of the Seven Darks, I have abided by our bargain, even at such times as you have turned it against me. Free me now or leave me to suffer, if you please.”

“Ummm,” Pogo began. “Uh, I’m not…whoever you think I am. I’m Pogo Cashman. From Reseda, California. And I’m pretty high. Does that make any sense?”

8*8*8

 

Elric was beginning to believe that this might not be Arioch after all: even the Hell-duke’s unpredictable humors did not usually extend this far. This strange, shabby creature must then be either some further trick by Elric’s tormentors, or a soul come unmoored from its own sphere which had drifted into this one, perhaps because of his summoning. Certainly the fact that Elric could understand the language the stranger called Pogokhashman spoke, while knowing simultaneously that it was no human tongue he had ever encountered, showed that something was amiss.

“Whatever you are, do you come to torment oft-tormented Elric? Or, if you are no enemy, can you free me?”

The young man eyed the heavy iron manacles on the albino’s wrists and frowned. “Wow, I don’t think so, man. Sorry. Bummer.”

The meaning was clear, though some of the terms were obscure. “Then find something heavy enough to crush my skull and release me from this misery,” breathed the MelnibonÈan. “I am rapidly growing weaker, and since apparently I am unable to summon aid, I will be helpless at the hands of one who has not the right to touch a Dragon Emperor’s shadow, much less toy with me for his amusement.” And as Elric thought about Badichar Chon’s grinning, gap-toothed face, a red wave of hatred rolled over him; he rocked in his manacles, hissing. “Better I should leave him only my corpse. An empty victory for him, and there is little in this life I will miss.”

The stranger stared back at him, more than a bit alarmed. He brushed a none-too-clean hank of hair from his eyes. “You want me to . . . kill you? Um . . . is there anything else I could do for you instead? Make you a snack? Get you something to drink?” He looked around as though expecting the Priest-King to have supplied his dungeon with springs of fresh water.

The albino wondered again whether the idiot apparition might not be a further cruelty from his captor, but if it was, it smacked of a subtlety the Chon had not previously exhibited. He struggled to maintain his flagging patience. “If you cannot free me, friend, then leave me to suffer in peace. Thrice-cursed Badichar Chon has taken Stormbringer, and without the strength it gives to me, my own treacherous body will soon accomplish the executioner’s work without assistance.”

“Storm . . .?”

“Stormbringer. My dark twin, my pet demon. My sword.”

The strange youth nodded. “Got it. Your sword. Y’know, this is pretty weird, this whole set-up. Like a J.R.R. Tolkien calendar or something. Are there hobbits here, too?”

Elric shook his head, surfeited with nonsense. “Go now. One who has sat upon the Dragon Throne prefers to suffer in private. It would be a kindness.”

“Would it help if I got this sword for you?”

The albino’s laugh was sharp and painful. “Help? Perhaps. But the Chon would be unlikely to give it to you, and the two-score killers of his Topaz Guard might have something to say on the subject of your taking it.”

“Hey, everything flows, man. Just try to stay cool.”

The youth turned and walked back toward the front of the cell. Elric’s dimming sight could not follow him into the shadows there, but although the stranger had clearly left the cell,, Elric did not hear the door open. Even in his pain and long-simmering fury, he had a moment’s pause. Still, whether the stranger was a demon, a hallucination, or truly some hapless traveler lured between the spheres by Elric’s desperate summons, the MelnibonÈan doubted he would see him again.

 

8*8*8

 

Curiouser and curiouser. Who said that?

Pogo grew back to his normal height on the far side of the door. This was certainly the strangest trip he had ever taken, and it wasn’t getting any normal-er as it progressed. Still, he had told the pale man he’d fetch his sword, and who knew how long it would be until the acid started to wear off? Better get on it.

He chose a corridor direction from the somewhat limited menu and set off. The stone passageway wound along for quite a distance, featureless but for the occasional torch. Pogo was embarrassed by the meagerness of his own imagination.

Sammy went on a spaceship that time when we did the four-way Windowpane, with all those blue insects flying it and giant donut creatures and everything. ‘Course, he reads more science fiction than I do -- all those guys with the funny names like Moorcock and Phil Dick. Sounds like they should be writing stroke-books instead.

Still, if his imagination hadn’t particularly extended itself in terms of dungeon decor, he was impressed by the relentless real-ness of the experience. The air was unquestionably dank, and what his desert boots were squelching through definitely looked, smelled, and sounded like the foulest of mud. And that Elric guy, with his built-in mime make-up, had been pretty convincing too.

The corridor opened at last into a stairwell, which alleviated the boredom somewhat. Pogo climbed for what seemed no little time. He was still terribly disappointed that it had not been Jimi Hendrix who had summoned him. He had been so certain…

A few more steps brought him to a landing which opened out in several directions, and for the first time he could hear sounds other than his own crepe-soled footfalls. He picked one of the arched doorways at random. Within moments he found himself surrounded by people, rather a shocking amount of them (perhaps he had undercredited his own powers of creativity!) all bustling about, dressed like they were trying out for The Thief of Baghdad or some other Saturday morning movie of Pogo’s youth. Shaven-headed, mustachioed men hurried past bearing rolled carpets on their shoulders, and small groups of women, veiled to a disappointing degree, whispered to each other as they walked close to the walls. In one large room that opened off the hallway dozens of sweating, flour-covered people seemed to be cooking a fantastically large meal. The din was incredible.

None of them seemed to pay much attention to Pogo. He was not invisible -- no one bumped him and several actively avoided him -- but nobody allowed themselves more than a swift glance before continuing briskly with whatever task consumed their attention. He forced a few to stop so he could ask them the whereabouts of a magic sword, but they gave him no reply, sliding away like cheerleaders avoiding a drunken loser at a party.

As Pogo walked on the hallway widened and became more lavishly decorated, the walls painted with flowing patterns of blossoming trees and flying birds. He saw fewer and fewer people until, after he had walked what he estimated was about twice the distance from his house to Xavier Cugat High School, he found himself in a section of the vast palace -- or whatever it was -- that was empty. Except for him. And the whispering.

He followed the rustling noise farther down the corridor, peeking into open rooms on either side; all were abandoned and deserted, though they looked as though they were in regular use. At last he found himself at the doorway of a large chamber that was inhabited. It was from here the whispering came.

In the center of a huge, high-roofed room stood what looked like a stone altar, the kind of thing on which someone might sacrifice a very tiny virgin to some undersized gods. Ranged around this altar, mumbling and hissing amongst themselves, stood half-a-dozen bearded men in robes of dramatic colors and wild design, each garment different, as though the men were in some sort of fashion competition. They stood in a ragged circle, intently examining a black sword which lay atop the altar stone like a frozen snake.

Several dozen grim-faced soldiers in gleaming armor studded with pale brown jewels stood facing out in a protective ring around the robed men, each with a long nasty-looking spear in one hand and a curving, equally nasty-looking sword sheathed at his waist.

Those must be the guard-guys Elric was talking about, Pogo reasoned. And that sword those other dudes are looking at must be Stunbanger, or whatever it is. His good-acid-trip confidence began to pale a little. Surely even if they couldn’t really hurt him -- it was only a hallucination, after all -- getting whacked with all those sharp things could turn the trip into a real bummer, and possibly even make him feel kind of queasy for a couple of days after he came down.

After a moment’s consideration, then a single careful thought, he felt himself begin to shrink once more.

It was strange walking along the groove between the tiles and seeing the edges stretch, valley-like, over his head. It was even stranger staring up between the legs of the colossal Topaz Guardsmen, each one now as tall as the pylons of a bridge.

Be pretty cool to do this right underneath Diana Darwent and her jockette friends. If they were wearing skirts.

He laughed, then froze in place, afraid that he might be heard and noticed. After a moment’s reflection -- had he ever heard a bug laughing? -- he hiked on.

Climbing up onto the dais was difficult, but at his present size there were irregularities in the stone that offered good handholds. The robed and bearded men around the sword were talking, and just as with Elric, he could understand them perfectly -- or at least their words, although their voices were thunderously loud and rumbled like the bass notes at a Deep Purple concert. Their meaning was a little less clear.

“It is a coagulated form of Etheric Vapor. Were it not for the binding rituals, it would re-transmogrify into Vapor Absolute and evaporate. If we could just try the Splitting Spell once more . . .”

“Your reasoning is as thin as a viper’s skinny bottom, Dalwezzar. Etheric Vapor plays no part here. It is a perfectly ordinary sword that has been drawn through a Multiversal Nexus, and hence its individual monads have . . . er . . . turned inside-out. More or less.”

“You two! If you would ever look at something without trying to make it fit those hobby-horse ideas of yours, those addle-brained pseudo-certainties you cosset and fondle in your lonely beds as though they were catamites… Badichar Chon needs answers. Bah! Never send a Theoretical Thaumaturge to do a Practical Thaumaturge’s job.”

As Pogo was listening to this, albeit uncomprehendingly, and pondering how he could get to the sword itself -- he was putting aside the “and then what?” question for a little while -- something large and dark moved over him like a storm cloud.

“And what is this? Look, Dalwezzar, a homunculus! Now tell me how your Etheric Vapor nonsense explains the breeding of homunculi by the Study Object! Ha! If there was ever a proof that this is a product of a Multiversal Nexus . . .”

Pogo looked up in shock as he realized that the homo-whatever they were talking about was him. As he wondered whether it was his desert boots -- he had told his mom he wanted real hiking boots, but she had told him if he wanted a pair of 60 dollar Vibram-soled shoes just to stand around the parking lot, he could damn well get a job -- a pair of tweezers the size of a lamp post closed on his shirt and jerked him into the air.

He hung now before something so full of holes, so covered with hairs like burnt tree-trunks that for a moment he thought he had been kidnapped by a public campground. Several more moments passed before he could make out what it was --a giant face.

“Quick, get the killing jar!” The fumes from the yawning, snaggle-toothed cave were enough to make Pogo swear off onions for life. “Ah, Dalwezzar, you will cringe in embarrassment when this is published! You will shriek and writhe! ‘Etheric Vapor’ will be a term of academic scorn for centuries to come!”

“Pig! Of course you want to put it in the killing jar! Were I allowed to boil it alive, you would see that this too is a pure distillation of the Vapour! Give it to me!”

A gristly thing like a giant pink squid reached up and snatched at the tweezers. Pogo felt himself being whipped back and forth through the air as though on a malfunctioning carnival ride. The material of his t-shirt began to shred.

Oh shitshitshit, he thought in a panic. Small bad! Small bad! Big good!

The robed and bearded men suddenly began to shrivel around him, as did the room itself, even the serried ranks of Topaz Guards. Within moments, all half-dozen Learned Men had disappeared. Or rather, as Pogo realized after a bit, they were still around, but he was sitting on them: he could hear their dying cries from beneath the back pocket of his Levis, and feel their thrashing final moments against his posterior. It was pretty gross, but he couldn’t get up, since his head was now wedged against the tiled ceiling.

The Topaz guard, hardened combat veterans to a man, stared at the sudden appearance of a 45-foot tall California teenager in a Rock and Roll Animal shirt, then screamed and fled the great chamber. By the time the last spear had clattered to the floor, Pogo was alone.

Something was giving him a distinctly painful sensation in his hindquarters. He reached around behind himself, shuddering as he scraped loose a wet unpleasantness in a robe, and tried to remove the pricking object.

As soon as his fingers touched the black sword, he found himself normal-sized once more, the transition so painfully swift that for some minutes he could only sit, head spinning, among the unwholesome remnants of what had once been Badichar Chon’s College of Thaumaturges.

 

8*8*8

 

Elric looked up at the sound, a thin yet painful scraping. Something was happening in the darkness near the door of his cell. He felt so weak it was difficult to focus his eyes, let alone muster any interest.

“Uh, hey, are you okay?”

The strange young man had appeared out of the darkness as mysteriously as he had vanished. Elric gave a hapless shrug which gently rattled his chains. “I have been happier,” he admitted.

“It’s stuck halfway under. It’ll fit, I just have to pull on it some more. Too bad nobody around here ever heard of a kitty-door. That woulda been perfect.”

Having finished this obscure announcement, the stranger turned and headed back toward the front of the cell. There was some kind of stain on the seat of his pants. It looked like blood.

After a further interlude of scraping, the apparition returned. Elric’s eyes widened.

“This must be it, right?” The youth held Stormbringer cradled in his arms. He had clearly never handled a sword.

“By my ancestors, how did you . . . ?” Elric could feel the runeblade’s nearness like a cool wind on his face.

“Long story. Look, could you take it? It feels kind of weird. No offense.”

Elric’s white fingers strained at the hilt, which the stranger obligingly brought near. As his palm closed around it he felt a tiny trickle of energy, but within moments even that ended. Elric still felt very feeble.

“There is something wrong. Perhaps it has been too long since the blade has taken a life. It does not strengthen me the way it should.” He twisted his wrist; even with the slight additional strength it had given him, he could not lift it upright. “It is hungry for souls.”

The stranger -- what had he called himself? Pogokhashman? -- squinted suspiciously. “Like, take it to a James Brown concert or something, I guess. But don’t point it at me, okay? That thing’s weirder than a mofo.”

The MelnibonÈan slumped. “Of course, my friend. I would not harm you, especially when you have done me such an unexpected good. But without Stormbringer’s power, I am still as prisoned as I was before. And if the Chon has been alerted to its theft, he will approach me very carefully. I will not be given an opportunity to blood it.” He paused, staring at the black blade. “But if it were hungry for soul-energy -- depleted -- then I do not understand why it did not try to force me to kill you. Usually it is like an ill-bred mastiff, always lunging at my friends.”

Pogokhashman shrugged. “Shit happens.”

Frustration welled up in Elric. To think that the last scion of his proud people should come to this: slowly starving to death in a cell, prisoner of a low-level satrap, his blade in his hand and yet useless to him!

“Ah, Duke Arioch!” he screamed suddenly. “Fate has played a clever trick on me this time! Why have you not come to gloat? Your love of irony should draw you like a tick to hot blood! Come, Arioch, and enjoy my plight! Come, Chaos Lord!”

And, as the echoes of Elric’s voice settled into the damp walls and mired floor, Arioch came.

The light of the torch seemed to bend; the cell darkened but for one spot, where the straw glowed as if afire. In that place the shadows became a buzzing cloud of flies, which drew into a tight spiral, then circled more closely still until they composed a moving tube of glinting, humming darkness. The tube widened, then unfolded, becoming a beautiful young man in a strange suit of red velvet. He wore a cylindrical hat with a wide brim, and his hair was nearly as pale as Elric’s own.

“Arioch! You have come after all.”

The Hell-duke eyed him with amusement. “Ah, sweet Elric. I find you in yet another dreadful predicament.”

Backed against the wall, Pogokhashman was staring, goggle-eyed. “I know you!” he said. “You’re that guy in the Rolling Stones. But Sammy said you drowned in your swimming pool.” He regarded him a moment longer. “Nice tux.”

Arioch turned to survey the stranger, his look of benign indifference unchanged. “Hmmm,” he said, his musical voice as langorous as the song of a summer beehive. “Your taste in companions is still inimitably your own, my little MelnibonÈan.”

Elric felt compelled to defend Pogokhashman, obscure and alien though he might be. “This man has done me a great service. He has returned Stormbringer to me.”

“Ah, yes. Stormbringer. Which was taken from you by ambush, yes?” Arioch walked delicately through the muck of the cell-floor as though trying to keep the hems of his flared scarlet pantaloons clean. “Your runeblade was snatched from you by Badichar Chon, I believe the fellow’s name is, and subjected to much experimenting by his pet wizards. And now it doesn’t . . . function properly, is that it?” He spoke with the solicitude of Elric’s old torturer Doctor Jest sympathizing with a prisoner over some heinous outrage which Jest himself had perpetrated.

“Yes. Yes! It does not overcome my weakness. I cannot break free.”

“No doubt that is because of the Splitting Spell . . . and the Chronophage.”

Elric frowned. “I have never heard of either of these things.”

“The first is very simple -- primitive even.” Arioch crossed his legs as a tailor might, and hovered a yard and a half above the cell floor. Across the cell, Pogokhashman’s face split in a wide, incredulous grin. “You wielded more powerful magicks yourself when you were but a princeling, sweet Elric, a child. Badichar Chon searched far and wide to fill his College of Thaumaturges . . . but his is rather a backwater kingdom after all, and the candidates were of a somewhat low order. Still, the Splitting Spell they used in an effort to unlock Stormbringer’s secrets was crudely effective, although in their ignorance they did not even recognize their success. They managed partially to unbind its energies -- just for a moment of course, but in one of those delightful coincidences that are the bane of less flexible sorts than myself, it happened to be just the proper moment and a part of your runeblade’s essence was drawn away.”

“Drawn away by what? And what of this Chronophage? Some demon or wizard who robbed Stormbringer of its power?”

Arioch smiled and floated higher, until he was far above Elric’s head. A tube appeared in his hand, pulled out of some crack in reality, and the Chaos Lord brought its brass mouthpiece to his lips and inhaled. After a moment he blew out a great ring of blue smoke which drifted above his head and hung there.

“It would never do to tell you too much, pretty Elric,” he said. “It is antithetical to Chaos to rob individuals of their initiative.”

“Games, Duke Arioch, always games. Well, then, I will find the Chon’s wizards and discover what they have done with their ham-handed spells.”

Arioch grinned around the brass mouthpiece. “You will not have to look far, I think.” He inclined his head toward Pogokhashman. Smoke wafted from his nostrils. “Turn around, you.”

The stranger stared at Arioch, then slowly pivoted until the stain on his backside came into view.

“If you have any questions for the College of Thaumaturges,” chuckled Arioch, “you may ask them now.”

“It was. . . um . . . an accident,” Pogokhashman said quietly.

Elric shook his head. “I understand nothing.”

Arioch blew another smoke-ring. “You must find Stormbringer’s stolen essence. It will lead you to the Chronophage. That is enough to begin. Farewell, my tragic underling.”

“Wait!” The MelnibonÈan leaned forward; his chains clanked. “I am still trapped here, too weak to escape . . .”

“Which will make your adventure all the more piquant.” Arioch abruptly began to grow transparent, then disappeared. The last of the smoke-rings followed him into oblivion a few seconds later.

“A thousand curses!” Elric howled at the empty air, then let his chin droop to his chest. Even anger sapped him; he could feel his remaining strength sifting away like sand through spread fingers. “Betrayed once more. My family’s bargain with Chaos has again proved to be a dubious one.”

“Wow, man, sorry.” Pogokhashman came forward and awkwardly patted the albino’s shoulder. “I’m not too clear on all this, but it sounds like a bummer.” He paused for a moment, then dug in his pocket. “Would these help any?”

Elric goggled at the ring of iron keys. “What . . . where . . . ?”

Pogokhashman shrugged. “One of those Topless Guards dropped ‘em. When they all ran away.”

“Ran away . . .?”

“Long story, man, like I told you.” The youth began trying the keys in the thick iron lock on Elric’s shackles. The third one clicked, then clicked again, and the shackles fell away.

Elric was having trouble encompassing all that had happened to him. He stared at his unlikely savior and shook his head. “I thank you, Pogokashman. If I can ever repay you…”

“I just hope you get your sword fixed. Or whatever that swimming-pool guy was saying.”

Elric held Stormbringer before him. It was still his living blade, but its essence was quiet, as though it slept. He shook it experimentally, then turned to his companion. “And somehow, I gather, you have destroyed the College of Thaumaturges -- Badichar Chon’s wizards?”

The look of embarrassment returned. “Didn’t mean to. I kind of sat on them.”

Elrich shook his head, but did not pursue the matter. “Then I shall have to find some other method of seeking Stormbringer’s lost essence. You seem to be full of hidden powers, my friend. Can you help me? I am far in your debt already.”

“I don’t think so, man. I mean, I’m not even sure how I got here in the first place. We just took some acid, Sammy and me, and I was thinking about . . . well, anyway, I don’t think so.”

“Then I must try to solve the riddle.” Secretly, Elric felt a little relieved. The ease with which this stranger had defeated the Chon’s wizards and handpicked guard and then retrieved Stormbringer made the MelnibonÈan feel embarrassingly helpless. His sickly constitution had often placed him in such a position, but he did not hate it any the less for its familiarity. Now, even though his predicament was desperate, at least he would stand or fall by his own devices.

He wracked his mind for a spell that would allow him to trace Stormbringer’s stolen essence. This process was made slightly more difficult by his own light-headed weakness, and also by Pogokhashman, who strolled up and down the length of the cell whistling and humming and occasionally singing some tuneless ballad about the wind crying merry, his feet crunching through the rotted straw. Elric winced, but persevered, and at last a wisp of memory rose from the depths.

“Bring me the torch,” he called. His new companion went and drew it from the bracket, then stood in obvious amazement as the albino pushed his long-fingered right hand into the flames.

“What…uh…?”

Silence!” Elric hissed through clenched teeth. When he deemed a long enough moment had passed, he snatched it out again. The pain was dreadful, but it was necessary: between his own feebleness and Stormbringer’s strange torpor, Elric needed to strengthen the connection. He grasped the runeblade’s hilt in his raw, agonized hand and closed his eyes, then felt for the restlessly slumbering core of Stormbringer.

LI#

“In flame and blood our pact was sealed,”

LI#

he intoned in a tongue that had been ancient before Imrryr was raised above the waves. He thought he could perceive a vague stirring in the internal darkness.

LI#

“With death and souls the bargain fed.

Now lost to me is my dark friend.

Its secrets all concealed.

LI#

“In blood our pact was first annealed,

With death and souls the bond was made

Let light now burn away the shade

Let all now be revealed.

LI#

“By all the ancient lore I wield

By all who wait at my command

By my heart’s blood and my right hand

Now let the breach be healed!”

LI#

When he had finished the incantation he paused, listening for something soundless, looking for something that had no shape. In a further shadow, deeper than the blackness behind his eyelids, something was indeed stirring. He felt for it, and sensed its incompleteness: Stormbringer itself was searching for what was lost. The questing something that was the remnant of the blade’s essence uncoiled and began to draw away from him. He seized at it with his mind, and could feel himself being pulled along.

“Pogokhashman,” he croaked, eyes still tightly shut. “Take my hand!”

Something grasped his left hand, even as he felt himself being sucked down through his own thoughts, down a darkly pulsing rabbit-hole into nothingness.

 

8*8*8

 

Curiouser and curiouser, my ass! This is just plain . . . weird.

Pogo had grabbed Elric’s white hand -- not without some trepidation; the gayness of the whole thing aside, he had also worried the albino might jam his fingers into the torch as well. An instant later, they were off to Wonderland.

Or something. Actually, what made it frightening is that it wasn’t really anything. The closest comparison Pogo could make was the light-show ride down to Jupiter in 2001, A Space Odyssey. But that had been a day at the beach compared to this.

Bodiless yet achingly cold, he was tumbling like a meteor through shouting darkness. Streamers of thinly-colored something-or-other flared past him, but although they looked like ragged clouds, he could sense that they were somehow alive, that it was their voices which raged and bellowed in his ears, enraged by his relative warmth and mobility. He could also sense that if they caught him, they would do things to him he wouldn’t like at all.

Pogo closed his eyes, but it made no difference. Either he really didn’t have a body -- he couldn’t see his hands, his legs, or even his faintly embarrassing suede desert boots -- and thus had no eyes, or the place he was, the things that shouted at him, were all behind his eyelids . . . in his brain.

But if the bits with Elric and the dungeon and that Rolling Stones guy, if they had all been a hallucination too, how come they felt real and this part felt crazy?

Pogo had just decided that it was time to seriously contemplate coming down from this whole trip, and wondering how to do it, when he popped through a hole in a much more normal-looking sky and tumbled to a halt on an endless grassy plain. A single hill loomed in the distance; otherwise the place was incredibly boring, like the kind of state park even his parents would drive through without stopping. Elric rose to his knees beside him, clutching Stormbringer in his blistered right hand. The albino looked very real and quite weary.

“We are here, Pogokhashman -- wherever ‘here’ may be.”

“You mean you don’t know?”

“No more than you do. Stormbringer, not I, has led us to this place.”

Considering all that had gone before, this new wrinkle worried Pogo rather more than it should have. He found himself longing for the shadowy dungeon, which had begun to feel quite familiar, almost homey. Could you get lost in an acid hallucination, somehow get off the proper track and go permanently astray? He dimly remembered his Cub Scout den master saying that when you were lost in the woods you were supposed to stay in one place until people found you.

But somehow I don’t think Mr. McNulty was gonna show up with a compass and a canteen and take me home, whether I stayed in the dungeon or not.

“Bummer,” he said aloud, with considerable feeling. “So what do we do now?”

Before Elric could answer, a booming crash knocked them both to the ground, which itself trembled as if in sympathy. A vast globe of light bloomed on the distant hilltop, spreading and reddening.

“Whoah! Nukes?” Pogo asked, but he didn’t really want to know.

A moment later something rustled in the grass. Pogo looked down, then leaped to his feet with a shout of alarm. The plain was alive with serpents and rodents, hundreds, no, thousands of them, all moving in a single direction with the speed of complete terror.

“They’re runnin’ from that bomb on the hill!” Pogo shouted, searching his memory for nuclear attack information. “Duck and cover!”

Elric too was on his feet, shaking loose a cluster of panicked ground squirrels from his boot. “I do not know what should frighten these creatures so,” he called above the whipsaw hissing of the grass, “and do not recognize the word you used, but they are running toward the hill.”

Pogo turned. The albino was right. The rush of small creatures bent the grass like a heavy wind – there were insects, too, flashing like dull jewels as they flew and hopped -- all speeding toward the hill, where the globe of red light still hung, although it seemed to be fading.

“Look, Pogokhashman!” Elric now pointed in the opposite direction. Pogo turned again, frowning. His neck was beginning to hurt.

A dark line had appeared on the far horizon, a moving band of shadow, and it was from this that the local fauna were beating such a hasty retreat. As he and Elric stared, the line moved closer. It was hard to see clearly at such a distance, harder still because of the clouds of dust and chaff thrown up by the fleeing animals. Pogo squinted, and was glad for the concealing dust. What he could see was quite unpleasant.

“It’s weird-looking guys in armor. And -- Jesus! -- there’s a whole shitload of ‘em. Thousands!”

“If they are not a Chaos horde, they are a marvellous imitation,” Elric said grimly. “See, they are twisted and malformed.”

“Yeah. Ugly, too.”

Elric pushed Stormbringer into his belt and clutched Pogo’s shoulder. “They are too many to fight, especially with my runeblade in its diminished state. In any case, we are too exposed here, and we know nothing of this world.”

“What you’re saying is: ‘Let’s run away’, right? Good idea.”

Elric seemed about to try to explain something, but instead turned and began loping toward the hill. Pogo hurried to catch up.

This is just like gym class, he thought, feeling a stitch already beginning to develop in his side. But at least in gym, you get to wear sneakers. What kind of a stupid acid trip is this, anyway?

It was difficult to run through the living sea of animals, but Pogo had already accustomed himself in the dungeon to stepping on furry things. Besides, one look back convinced him that the pursuing horde of beast-men would happily do the same to him. Gasping for breath, pumping his elbows with a determination that would have made his PE teacher Mr. Takagawa stare in disbelief, he sprinted toward the solitary hill.

Elric faltered, and Pogo suddenly realized how difficult this must be for a man who until minutes ago had been hanging in chains. He grabbed the albino’s elbow -- it was astonishing how thin he was beneath his tattered shirt -- and half-tugged him along, which made their progress even more agonizingly slow. Pogo was now feeling so frightened that a part of him considered just letting the pale man fall so he could run at full speed.

Once, back in junior high school, he had left Sammy lying with a twisted ankle after they had rung Old Jacobsen’s doorbell and ran. Sammy had gotten caught and had to go to the emergency room, too. Pogo had never felt good about that.

“C’mon, dude, we’re almost there,” he panted. The albino struggled on.

Something was echoing in Pogo’s ears as they reached the skirts of the hill, a mysterious, almost pleasant buzzing too low and soft to identify. There was something in the way it vibrated in the bones of his skull that he knew he should recognize, but he was too busy dragging Elric and dodging high-speed rodentia to give it proper consideration.

They began to clamber up the slope. The greatest number of fleeing animals parted and passed around the hill like a wave around a jetty, but enough accompanied Pogo and Elric to continue to make their progress difficult. One large, white, long-eared creature ran right between Pogo’s legs and bounded up the slope ahead of him. He was almost certain it had been carrying a pocket-watch.

Never…had…acid…like this. Even his thoughts were short of breath.

The red glow hovering over the hilltop had almost disappeared now. Pogo was trying both to dodge around the few bedraggled trees dotting the slope and observe the peak when something suddenly hit him hard in the back and toppled him forward.

Before he could do more than register the pain in his skinned palms and note that Elric too was lying on the ground beside him, something very sharp poked the back of his neck.

“The first of the Hell-troop,” a voice said. “And not the foulest of the lot, I’ll be bound -- although these two still have little to brag about. Do you think the prince will want to see them?”

“No. He is deep in his spells. I say we skewer them here and then finish the barricade.”

A certain breathlessness lay beneath the hard words. Despite his own fast-beating heart, Pogo recognized that these men were frightened.

Well, if they’re waiting here to fight the Munsters Fan Club, that’s not much of a surprise.

“We are not enemies,” Elric said hoarsely. “We are not part of the Chaos horde, we are fleeing it.”

“They speak!”

“Yeah,” Pogo offered, “but we’d probably do it better if we weren’t eatin’ turf, man.”

The pointy thing was withdrawn from his nape; as Pogo clambered slowly to his feet, he identified it as the business end of a very long spear. The man holding it and his companion looked much like the guards Pogo had met at the Chon’s palace, except not so stylishly dressed; they wore ragged chain-mail, dented helmets, and expressions of worried fatigue.

“You are not mortal men,” said one of their captors suspiciously.

“We are, whatever you may think of our appearance,” Elric assured him. “Now, if you are part of a force that opposes that oncoming horde – and if, as it appears, there is no bargaining with them -- we will fight at your side.”

“We will?” Pogo thought the “run away” idea had been much superior.

Elric turned to him. The prospect of a fight appeared to have revived the albino somewhat, although he still seemed dreadfully weak. “We cannot outpace them forever. If we must make a stand, it should be here, with other brave souls.”

“Whatever, man.” Pogo was again giving serious thought to coming down. The problem was, he couldn’t figure out how to do it. Everything seemed rather dreadfully and inescapably real. When he closed his eyes, he could still hear Elric and the soldiers talking.

“If you are truly allies, you are strange-looking ones. We should take you to our lord.”

“And who is he?”

“Why, Shemei Uendrijj, the Gypsy Prince himself!” The man seemed to expect a gasp of startlement from Elric. When he spoke again, he sounded disappointed. “You have not heard of him?”

“I am certain he is a man of great bravery, to command such loyalty,” Elric said. “Take us to him, please.”

Pogo opened his eyes. It was useless. Same stupid place, same stupid trip. Same ravening army of beast-men moving rapidly across the plain toward them.

The soldiers led them up the hill at a jog. The cries of the oncoming horde echoed louder and louder, and so did the strange vibratory almost-sounds that Pogo had noticed earlier.

The horde was baying for blood, voices as discordant as a group of frat boys opening the dozenth keg on a Friday night. Pogo stumbled ahead, growing less and less enchanted with the products of his own imagination every moment. More soldiers, sullen and fearful, turned to watch them. At last they reached the top of the hill, bare but for a copse of trees and a small group of armored men. At the center, holding in his hand a blade that looked as though it had been carved from a single piece of ivory, stood the Gypsy Prince.

Pogo teetered to a stop, goggle-eyed.

 

8*8*8

 

Elric strode forward, lifting his hands in a gesture of peace as he approached the Gypsy Prince. There was little time to be wasted on mistrust. “We come as allies, sir. I am Elric of MelnibonÈ, and this is Pogokhashman of…of…” He waited for his companion to add the proper details, then noticed that Pogo was no longer within his peripheral vision. He looked down.

The young man had fallen to his knees, his arms extended before him in an attitude of worship. For one so casual in other ways, he seemed quite formal about meeting royalty. Elric felt a moment’s ill-humor that he, who had once sat the Dragon Throne itself, had received no such obeisance. Still, hanging in chains was undoubtedly a curb to good first impressions . . .

“Jimi!” shrieked Pogokhashman, and banged his forehead against the ground. “Oh my god, Jimi, it’s you! I knew it! Man, I knew it! Sammy will be so bummed he missed this!”

Startled, Elric took a step away, then turned to survey the Gypsy Prince, who seemed just as disconcerted as the albino.

Shemei Uendrijj was a handsome, dark-skinned man no older than Elric. His wild, curly black hair was restrained by a scarf tied about his forehead, and he was clad in bright but mismatched finery that made him look something like a corsair of the Vilmir Straits -- in fact, he dressed much as Elric did. Stranger still, as the dark Gypsy Prince was in some ways a reverse image of the albino, so was his bone-white sword a distorted mirror-version of Stormbringer.

Was that why the runesword had drawn them here?

“Your friend seems to know me.” Uendrijj’s voice was soft and lazy, but with hidden strength. Given speech, thought Elric, so might a leopard speak. “But I confess I do not know him. Rise, man!” he called to Pogokhashman. “If I have forgotten you, that is my shame, but there is much to occupy my thoughts today.” He turned to Elric, and as his gaze slid down to Stormbringer, his eyes widened a trifle, but in speculation rather than worry. “If you are allies, you are welcome. But I fear you have joined what will surely be the losing side.” He smiled despite his gloomy words. Elric could not help liking him.

“We will be proud to fight alongside you, whatever the case.” Elric glanced at Pogokhashman, who still looked like someone in a narcotic dream. “I have fought against such a Chaos troop before. They are not unbeatable.”

The Gypsy Prince raised an eyebrow. “Ah, but they are merely the outrunners. The Chronophage is our true, and direst, enemy.”

Startled, Elric opened his mouth, eager to question Uendrijj, but before he could utter a word a ragged shout came rolling up the hillside from below.

“They come! They come!”

The Gypsy Prince turned to Elric. His mustachioed upper lip twitched in another smile. “I sense we might have much to talk about, you and I, but I fear we are about to be interrupted.” He lifted his sword. “Ah, Cloudhurler, again we stand in a strange place as death rushes upon us. I should never have allowed my destiny to become entangled with yours.”

A strange low humming came from the white blade, a kind of vibratory music unlike anything Elric had ever heard, although with some inexpicable similarities to Stormbringer’s own battle-song. Pogokhashman lifted his head and shook it dreamily, as though the sword spoke to him in some deep manner.

The baying of the horde was growing louder. The dark tide of their armored forms swirled around the base of the hill. “But who or what is this Chronophage?” Elric shouted. “Is it the master of these creatures?”

“No!” Uendrijj beckoned for his soldiers to gather around. “It is a . . . a force. A blasphemy, a thing that should not be. It devours all in its path. These mad Chaos-things only run ahead of it, seizing a last opportunity to smash and rend and murder before the greater destroyer comes.”

A small troop of attackers had burst through the barricade at the bottom of the hill, and were rushing up the slope. Their leader, whose sagging skin seemed to have melted and run like candle-wax, swung a long iron bar studded with rusting spikes. His cohorts, their faces and limbs also distorted, hopped and limped after him, barking like maddened dogs.

Elric lifted Stormbringer as the beast-men approached. His weakness made it feel very heavy; he was barely able to deflect the melted man’s flailing bar. Neither did he feel the runeblade’s usual sentience, its familiar battle-lust. As the bar whistled toward him again, Elric ducked under it and jabbed up into his foe’s throat. It seemed an effort even to pierce the runneled flesh, but at last the runesword sank in and a shower of watery blood spattered the albino’s face. Stormbringer did not drink the creature’s soul. It was as lifeless as any old iron blade.

Two of the melted man’s companions came shambling forward as Elric struggled to free his blade. A flick of white sheen from one side and the nearer limped on a few steps without a head before crumpling to the ground. Elric darted a quick look, but Uendrijj had already moved away again, carrying his ivory sword to the support of some of his hard-pressed soldiers. The second beast-man moved in more slowly, hefting a huge, crude axe. His mouth seemed to have slipped down to his neck, where it gaped wetly.

The axe rose and began to fall even as Elric at last yanked Stormbringer free. He whirled, knowing he could not bring it up in time to prevent the blow. The beast-man’s teeth were bared in a grin of triumph, gleaming from the hole in his throat. A moment later he shot into the air and vanished. His axe thumped onto the ground.

A giant Pogokhashman nearly ten times Elric’s height stood where the bar-wielder had been, his vast hand shielding his eyes against the sun’s glare.

“Cool,” said the giant. “He’s really flying!” He winced. “Whoah. Splat City.”

As the albino stared upward in shock he was nearly beheaded by another member of the horde, who ran forward whirling a long, weighted chain. As Elric began to duck, the creature abruptly disappeared beneath the odd, rubbery sole of the giant’s boot.

“Pogokhashman, it is really you…?”

“Yeah,” the giant boomed. “Sorry, ‘Ric, dude, I got kinda startled at first and got small. You almost stepped on me.” He examined the underside of his boot. “Ick. I woulda looked like that.”

Elric smiled wearily. “I am too weak to be much amazed, but you are amazing, nevertheless. I begin to get some idea of how you defeated the Chon’s guardsmen.”

“Yeah. Hang on for a minute, okay?”

As the MelnibonÈan watched, Pogokhashman squinted as if in deep concentration, then grew even larger. Stepping carefully over Uendrijj’s soldiers, he crossed to the copse of trees, uprooted one of the largest and oldest, then returned to the battle, holding the tree by the roots. Using it as something between a war-club and a broom, within moments he had scraped, slammed, and swept most of the beast-men from the hilltop, tumbling them broken and shrieking back down onto the plain, where the rest of the horde cowered in open astonishment. When Uendrijj and his men had dispatched the few remaining enemies, a relative calm fell over the hill. The horde of beastmen below seemed in no hurry to resume their assault.

“I think I should shrink back again,” Pogokhashman said, setting down his tree. A few squirrels crept out of its upper branches and wobbled away in search of a quieter home. “I’m getting kinda dizzy.”

The Gypsy Prince turned from posting a fresh set of sentries. “I do not know what the source of your magic is, brave youth, but I think as long as you retain that size, the enemy will hesitate before attacking again.”

“I’ll try. Maybe if I sit down.” Pogokhashman sank to the ground. Even with his chin resting on his fists, he was still as large as a moderately tall building.

“I have never seen the like.” The prince shook his head in admiration.

“We must talk while we have the opportunity, Shemei Uendrijj,” said Elric. “There are mysteries to be unraveled on both sides, but you know more of this situation than we do. What is the Chronophage?”

“Rest yourself, friend Elric, for you look ill and tired. I will tell you.” Uendrijj looked down at the sea of deformed creatures surrounding their tiny island. “I will make my tale brief.”

The Chronophage, he explained hurriedly, was not a living thing but a force of nature -- or rather a force of un-nature, as his own magicians had told him when it was first manifested.

“It was brought about by some unprecedented slippage or sparking of the Multiverse. We know not what caused it, but only that it threatens all life, all thought . . . everything. It is a mindless hunger that eats Time itself -- where it has passed, nothing remains but swirling, unfathomable emptiness. Even the Lords of Law are helpless against it.”

“As must be the Lords of Chaos as well,” Elric said thoughtfully. “In his backhanded manner, my patron Arioch has manipulated me into fighting a battle which he cannot himself fight.”

“You are a servant of Chaos?” Uendrijj seemed a little startled. “But I have been taught that its underlings are as soulless as the deformed beasts we fight.”

“I am an often unwilling servant.” Elric explained his family’s age-old pact with Arioch and his kin. “And both Chaos and Law manifest themselves differently in different spheres.”

“I myself am not always happy in my service to Law,” admitted Uendrijj. “I fear the stultifying world my masters would make should they ever triumph -- but they are weak in my world, and to maintain a balance under which mortals can live, their cause must be supported.” He continued, explaining that his people had first heard rumours of the Chronophage from the fleeing survivors of worlds where it had already struck, and how at last he, the prince, had been forced to the temple of Law to beg for supernatural aid. There Donblas herself, the living Goddess of Serene Peace, had told him that the Chronophage threatened not just humankind, but the continued existence of the entire multiverse.

“So I retrieved Cloudhurler, my singing sword, from the place where it hung. I had sworn an oath that I would not draw it again, since it had served me treacherously during my pacification of the Merymmen, the Undersea People, leading me to inadvertent murder. But human oaths mean little set against the safety of Time itself.”

As he spoke, he looked at gleaming Cloudhurler with an expression Elric knew all too well.

“I chose this deserted site, a world my magicians discovered, as the place to make a stand against the Chronophage. We are few, as you have seen: the rest of my armies are helping my people to flee to another world through portals the wizards have made. Numbers will not avail me here, but I fear that neither will flight save my people if I fail.”

“And your sword?” Elric leaned closer. “I was brought here by my own blade, in quest for its lost essence. Like yours, Stormbringer is more than a mere weapon. Could there be some reason having to do with your sword that we were drawn here?”

The prince frowned. “It is possible. My chief mage, Jazh Jandlar, assisted me in a spell designed to use Cloudhurler to summon supernatural allies -- it has served me that way before, though never reliably. But no allies answered my summons.”

Elric sat up, pondering. “So you used your blade to call for help. I used my own summoning to call my patron, Duke Arioch of Chaos, to help me regain my lost sword Stormbringer -- but at the very moment I did so, my enemy’s chief magicians were tampering with the substance of my runeblade. And now we are both here, in this empty place. That makes for too many coincidences. I think I see the manipulation of the Lords of the Higher Planes at work here.” He looked up at Pogokhashman, who was trying to scrape something off the sole of his yards-long shoe. “ I received an ally -- that strange youth. Could it be that you received something of the essence of Stormbringer?”

The Gypsy Prince stared at him for a moment, then drew his white blade, which was discolored with various shades of beast-man ichor. “I have noticed a certain . . . restlessness in it, but the Singing Sword has ever been an unpredictable companion. I thought perhaps it responded to the presence of the Chronophage.”

Something had been stirring in the depths of the Stormbringer for several moments, as faint but arresting as a distant cry of pain. Elric lifted his runeblade and gently laid it against Cloudhurler’s white length. Suddenly, the sensation of sentience flared; at the same moment, Uendrijj reeled back as if he had been struck.

“By the Root, the Black Cat, and D’Modzho Feltarr!” breathed the prince. “Something is indeed alive in that sword of yours. I felt it as though it clawed at my soul.”

The albino did not speak, but gritted his teeth, suppressing a scream. Stormbringer’s lost power was flooding back into the blade and into him as well, boiling through his veins like a river of molten metal. Sweat beaded on his brow and his muscles trembled convulsively. Uendrijj lifted a brown, long-fingered hand as though to aid him, but hesitated, not sure what was happening.

As Stormbringer’s stolen essence flowed out of the white sword and through his own black blade, Elric felt something of Cloudhurler, and of its master as well. When at last the inrush stopped, his body throbbed with new strength. He boomed out a laugh, startling Uendrijj again.

“O Gypsy Prince, I sense that we have far more in common than just the possession of such weapons! You have been the victim of many of the same cosmic jests that have made my life a misery.”

Before Uendrijj could reply, the moon-wide face of Pogokhashman suddenly tilted down toward them.

“Hey, those weirdos are coming at us again,” the giant boomed. “Think you better get ready, man.”

Elric sprang to his feet. Now that his strength had returned, the prospect of combat almost delighted him. He reminded himself that some of the anticipation was Stormbringer’s own inhuman battle-glee; it would not do to become careless. “Come, Uendrijj, my more-than-brother! We have work to do!”

The Gypsy Prince unfolded himself more slowly, but with considerable grace. “I am glad to see you looking healthier, friend Elric.”

“Here they come,” called Pogokhashman, rising to his full towering height. “God-damn they’re ugly!”

LI#

Having at last worked up courage to face the giant, the beast-men came on without stopping, a seemingly unending tide of brutal, unthinking bloodlust. Despite their bravery and steadfastness, Uendrijj’s soldiery were dragged down one by one; some of those overcome did not die for hours, and their screams seemed to darken the air like shadows. Before the long afternoon had waned, only Elric, the prince, and the giant youth still stood against the horde.

As the sun fell into the West behind the ceaseless tide of attackers, the albino and the Gypsy Prince fought on, side by side. Elric shouted and roared, siphoning strength from his defeated enemies. Uendrijj chanted, plying his ivory sword with the fierce calm of a warrior monk. The swords gave voice, too: all through the long afternoon, Stormbringer’s exultant howl was capped and counterpointed by Cloudhurler’s complex, cascading song, as though the two weapons performed some arch-exotic concert piece. For hour upon hour the blades sang and their duochrome flicker scythed the awkward beast-men like a field of flowers . . . but these flowers had fierce thorns: both Elric and Shemei Uendrijj sustained many small wounds.

Pogokhashman retained his giant’s form, although in the few brief glimpses he had, Elric could see that his companion’s strength was flagging. The youth stationed himself just far enough away to avoid treading on his allies by accident, but close enough that he could protect them when they were too hard-pressed. Despite great weariness, he flailed about him with splintering tree trunks, shouting “It’s hit deep to center-field! It could be . . . yes! It’s a bye-bye baby!” and other incomprehensible battle cries, and causing vast carnage among the Chaos army. But still the horde came on. Their numbers seemed endless.

Uendrijj stooped to pick up his ivory sword, which had slipped from his blood-slicked hands. Elric stood over him, keeping a small knot of attackers at bay. Stormbringer had quaffed deep of the half-souls of beast-men, but it still thirsted. Elric was almost drunk on stolen vitality. If he was to die, it would be laughing, bathed in the gore of his enemies.

“I think you enjoy this,” Uendrijj shouted above the din as he straightened up. “I wish I could say the same, but it is only horrible, wearisome slaughter.”

Elric brought Stormbringer down in an almost invisibly swift arc, crushing the gray, jackal-eared head of one of their attackers. “War is only life speeding at a faster pace, O Prince!” he cried, although he did not know exactly what he meant. Before he could say more, Pogokhashman’s rumbling voice filled the air.

“The sun! Whoah, man -- check it out!”

Elric looked up to the far horizon. The sun hung there, a flat red disc, but something huge and dark had moved across its face. This was no mere eclipse…unless an eclipse had arms.

“The Chronophage!” screamed Uendrijj, and drove into the beast-men before him, clearing an opening.

“Lift us up, Pogokhashman,” Elric shouted to his companion. The giant youth squelched through the intervening foes and lifted his two allies in a palm the size of a barge.

The many-armed shape on the far horizon was an empty, lightless black that burned at the edges, as though an octopus-shaped hole had been scorched through the substance of reality. As they watched, the tentacles lashed across the sky; where they passed, nothing remained but sucking blackness. Lightning began to flicker all through the firmament.

The beast-men shrieked, a terrible howling that forced Elric to cover his ears, then the whole horde turned and fled down far side of the hill, swarming and hobbling like scorched ants. They no longer seemed to care whether they destroyed Elric and his allies or not, but were only intent on staying ahead of the all-devouring Chronophage. Within moments the hill was empty but for the giant and the two men in his hand. The Chaos horde had become a fast-diminishing cloud of dust moving toward the eastern horizon.

“The greater enemy is here,” said Uendrijj. “True doom is at hand.”

 

8*8*8

 

As he gasped, struggling to regain his breath, Pogo decided that Jimi’s remark was rather unnecessary. The giant flaming squid-thing was pretty hard to miss.

But this wasn’t Jimi, though. Not exactly. It was hard to keep that straight when it looked like you were holding Mister Electric Ladyland himself in your sweaty palm, but this guy was some other Hendrix -- a reincarnation or something. Still, it had been very satisfying to discover that he had been right after all: the Man had been calling him. Those eyes, that sly smile – however snooty he sounded, he was still Jimi.

“So what do we do now?” Pogo asked. He hurt all over and his arm was so tired it trembled. He reflected briefly on how embarrassing it would be to drop the multiverse’s greatest guitar player on his head. “There isn’t any such thing as 911 in this world, is there? I mean, a SWAT unit would be kinda comforting right now.”

Elric and Jimi winced. Pogo felt bad. He’d have to remember how loud his voice was in this giant size. Not that he’d be able to stay this way much longer. His muscles were throbbing like the first day of gym class, and he already had the grandaddy of all hangovers.

“We go forward -- probably to die,” said Hendrix. It was weird hearing the same Educational TV-type speech that Elric used coming out of Jimi’s mouth, but Pogo had finally gotten used to it.

“We have stood together,” said Elric. “We will fall together, too.”

Pogo made a face. Elric with his strength back was a pretty bitchin’ act -- more than a little scary, too -- but you could carry this King Arthur stuff too far. “How about we win and we don’t die? I like that idea better.”

Elric’s blood-flecked smile was painful to see. “It has been a rare pleasure knowing you, Pogokhashman. But what the Lords of the Higher Planes themselves cannot defeat…”

“But I was listening! You said those High Plains dudes brought you guys together on purpose, or something like that! Why would they do that if you couldn’t win? Seems like there must be easier ways to get you two rubbed out if that’s all they wanted.”

Hendrix and Elric exchanged glances. “Perhaps there is something in what he says,” Jimi said slowly. “Perhaps . . .”

“I mean look at you two! You’re like…mirror images, kinda. I mean, maybe you’re supposed to…I don’t know…form a supergroup! Like Blind Faith!” He darted a look at the western horizon. The Chronophage was spreading. Bits of the land itself had begun to disappear, as if they had been gnawed by rats the size of continents.

Elric stared hard at Pogo, then turned to Jimi. “Raise your blade again, Uendrijj.”

Jimi hesitated, then lifted the white sword. Elric pushed Stormbringer forward until the tips touched. “I have long since given up any kind of faith, blind or otherwise,” the albino said, “but perhaps . . .”

The place where the swords met began to glow with a deep blue light. As Pogo watched, hypnotized, the blue spread and enveloped both men. Pogo could feel a tingling in his palm where they stood. There was a sudden azure flash, bright as a gas-flame turned up to “infinity”. When Pogo could see again, only one figure remained in his hand. It wasn’t Elric.

It wasn’t Jimi, either.

She was tall and slender and absolutely naked, her skin a beautiful coffee-and-cream color, her hair streaked both black and white. Beneath her long lashes were eyes like golden coins. In her hand she held a slim gray sword.

“It is not a moment too soon,” she said in a voice as naturally melodious as birdsong.

Pogo stared, slack-jawed and dry-lipped. He felt big, dumb, and sweaty -- and seventy feet tall made for a lot of all three. He had never developed a swifter crush, not even the one on Miss Brinkman, his fifth-grade teacher, who had worn tartan miniskirts. “Um, who . . . who are you?”

I am the place where Law and Chaos come together, Pogo Cashman,” she said, “summoned by the joining of two sundered souls. I am that place, that moment, where seeming opposites are reconciled. Wrong needs right to exist; night must have its sibling day. The red queen and the white are in truth inseparable.” She raised her arms and held the sword over her head. It was oddly unreflective . “You might call me Harmony -- or Memory, or even History. I am that which holds the fabric of Time together -- its guardian.”

“Kind of like Glinda from the Wizard of Oz?”

“You have played your part. Now I am free to play mine.” As she spoke, she rose from his hand like a wind-tossed dandelion seed, and hovered. He wanted to look at her body -- she was exquisite -- but it seemed wrong, like wanting to touch up the Virgin Mary or something. She smiled as if she sensed his thought. Just the sight made his heart skip two beats.

“Your time here is almost done,” she sang. “But the multiverse holds many adventures for you . . . if you only look for them.”

Abruptly she turned and was gone, flying just like a comic-book heroine toward the hideous smear on the horizon, the gray sword lifted before her. Pogo thought she was unutterably, heartbreakingly beautiful. At the same time, she sort of reminded him of the hood ornament on a Rolls Royce.

He quickly lost sight of her against the pulsating black of the Chronophage, although he felt as though a part of him had gone with her. Deciding there was nothing more he could do, Pogo sat down on the ground, then allowed himself to shrink back to his normal size. He sighed with pleasure as his natural stature returned: it was like taking off the world’s tightest pair of shoes.

Something flickered on the horizon. As Pogo stared, still dizzy from changing sizes, the Chronophage writhed, then a searing streak of light moved across one of the tentacles. A soundless howl tremoloed through Pogo, a noiseless vibration that shook his very bones. The great black arm withered and vanished; where it had been, the sun seemed to be growing back.

More streaks of light, like the contrails of science fiction spaceships, ripped across the Chronophage. Pogo found himself back on his feet again and cheering. One by one the other arms shriveled and disappeared and the blighted sky and earth at last began to return.

When the arms had all gone there came a moment when the rest of the Chronophage’s black body began to swell, growing larger and larger against the sky until the sun was once more obscured. Pogo’s heart pounded. Then a star, a sparkling point of white light, bloomed in the midst of the darkness. An even deeper shuddering ran through Pogo as the Chronophage erupted in great shreds of tearing black. He was shaken so hard that for a moment everything swam away from him, and as he tumbled into oblivion he wondered if in fact the battle had been lost after all.

LI#

When Pogo opened his eyes again, Elric and Jimi were lying on the ground beside him. The sky contained nothing more sinister than a few clouds and the setting sun.

The albino struggled to sit up. Beside him, Jimi was slower to rise. Despite their weariness, a single look at the horizon showed both men that they had triumphed. Elric embraced the dark prince, then turned to Pogo, full of questions, but as the albino reached out a thin white hand to him, Pogo realized he could see the grass through it. Elric saw, too.

“I am being drawn back to my world,” the albino cried. “I sense that you and I are not to remain too long together in the same place, Shemei Uendrijj.” He looked at something Pogo could not see, and grinned wolfishly. “Ah, it seems that at least I will be granted my revenge against Badichar Chon. Hah! That is something!” He raised a nearly transparent Stormbringer in salute. “Farewell, Pogokhashman. You have performed a great service, and for more than just me. If we do not meet again, remember you have Elric of MelnibonÈ’s undying gratitude!”

“Same to you. Take it easy, dude!” Pogo was genuinely sorry to see the very white man go. He stood watching, his eyes suspiciously itchy, as Elric began to fade. “Wait a sec,” he said suddenly. “Hey, ‘Ric -- how do I get back?”

“Farewell…” The albino’s voice still echoed, but he was gone.

Pogo slumped to the ground, stunned. He was marooned. Like Alice, but down the rabbit-hole forever with no way out. And no ruby slippers. No, that was Oz again. Anyway, he was stuck.

A hand touched his shoulder.

“I am sorry you have lost your companion, Pogokhashman,” said Jimi. “But I would be honored if you would return with me to my world. You will be acclaimed as a hero. There is much that is beautiful there.”

“Yeah…?” This was better than nothing, that was for sure. Still, though the necessities of the moment had distracted him, he had not realized until now just how much he had been longing for his true home. “Suppose so. Is there stuff to do?”

“To do?” Jimi laughed. “Aye, much and much. There are places to see -- the febrile and primitive swamps of Baahyo, the glittering buildings and fragrant alleys of Noj Arleenz and Jhiga-Go. There is music to be heard -- I am myself known as something of a harpist, when I am allowed some peace from battle. And women, beautiful women…”

“Women? I did think this whole trip was kinda short on chicks…” Pogo remembered the creature called Harmony and felt a moment of sweetly painful mourning. “And…and would you teach me to play?”

“Certainly,” Uendrijj said, smiling. “Come, take my hand! You shall be my companion, then, Pogokhashman -- the whole Multiverse shall know your name…”

But as Pogo’s hand closed around his, Jimi too became foggy and hard to grasp. The plain on which they stood was also quickly getting dim. For a moment Pogo suspected that he and Jimi were merely undergoing more magical travel, but his last diminishing sight showed him that the Gypsy Prince still gripped the hand of another Pogo, who was disappearing along with him as the world fell away…

 

8*8*8

 

“Man! That was some intense acid, huh?” Sammy was bouncing around the room like a hamster whose wheel was out for repairs. “You wouldn’t believe what happened to me while you were lying there all out of it! I looked out the window and the mailman looked like some kind of monster! Unbelievable! And the street was, like, bubbling . . .”

Pogo leaned back in the beanbag nursing a joint. Sammy’s non-stop monologue was as reassuring as the sound of night traffic to a city-dweller.

“Sounds good, man,” he drawled, and stared up from the spots of blood on the soles of his desert boots to the poster of Jimi Hendrix on the wall. Was it really true, then? That somewhere in the multiverse an albino guy with a magic sword was remembering his time with Pogo? And, even weirder and cooler, that somewhere else in the multiverse, Jimi -- the very Man himself -- and his new buddy Pogo Cashman were having adventures together?

Sammy put Surrealistic Pillow on the stereo, skipping as always to his favorite song. “One pill makes you larger…” he tunelessly crooned, anticipating the actual beginning of the vocals by several seconds -- something that usually drove Pogo mildly crazy.

“Sounds good, man,” Pogo said, smiling.

Sammy wandered over to take the joint from him and stood contemplating the poster of Jimi with his white Fender guitar. “I wonder what “Stratocaster” means, anyway?” Sammy said hoarsely, his lungs full of smoke.

“ ‘Cloudhurler’.”

“Cloudhurler?” Sammy stared at him, then belched out a smoky laugh. “Man, you’re too high. Naw, it must have something to do with, like . . . broadcasting. You know, radio or something.”

“S’pose so,” said Pogo. “Throw me those potato chips, will you?”

“Here.” Sammy dropped the bag into his lap. “Feed your head.” He chuckled. White Rabbit was building toward its chugging climax. “ ‘Feed your head’ -- get it?”

“Yeah,” said Pogo. “Got it.”

 

 

 

(C) Tad Williams 2009

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.