Removing his fingers from the keys, Howard leaned over the typewriter and silently mouthed the words he had struck onto the paper. He shook his head and groaned. Pulling the release lever, he cranked the feeder knob and yanked the page free. Having wadded the paper into a tight paper ball, the young man pitched it into the wastebasket at the far end of the room. It joined twenty other balls that had preceded it.
The scrawny writer leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. “How the hell do you expect me to write this, Ed? I can’t ape Ian’s style to save my life, and this is the god-dammed climax of his story!”
Howard sighed and closed his eyes realizing that the impending deadline and restless week had brought him to ask questions of people who weren’t there. There was no answer from the editor while Howard sat alone in his Flatbush apartment at two in the morning.
Sinking limp in his chair, he opened bloodshot eyes and gazed upwards. “You could write this Mel… You could write this and have Queen Kittala of Atlantis run Caldan through with a sword and the subscribers would still think Ian wrote it!”
More conversations with phantoms, he thought shaking his head. Conversations with phantoms, about phantoms…
Looking at the cracks in the yellowed ceiling, Howard hardened his eyes and pulled himself straight in the wooden office chair. He glared at the silent keys before him. Pushing his horn-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose, he fed a new sheet of paper into the typewriter chewing his lip in thought.
Howard scrutinized the cover illustration Ed had provided for the upcoming issue of Perilous Fantasy Fiction for the hundredth time. Ian’s villain Caldan loomed large in the foreground, looking like Fu-Manchu in a white monks robe. It was an appearance that didn’t match the cult-leader’s depiction in Shadows of the Old Gods at all. A naked curvy blond was splashed hanging bound and screaming above a flaming pit in the middle of the illustration. Strategic wisps of smoke covered just enough of her tantalizing form to pass the censor and yet sell the issue on the stands. Finally, there was the monster from the pit threating the voluptuous woman’s feet. Howard assumed it was the artists take on the “unmentionable, unimagined obscenity” that was Ian’s vague description of the old gods. To the bespectacled writer however, the monster looked suspiciously like a lamprey eating a squid which was itself simultaneously eating a snake.
The whole thing was terribly lurid, but Ed had already cut the check for the art. With no budget to pay for another commission, this was what they had to work around. Howard looked away from the garish print and rolled up his shirt sleeves. After cracking his knuckles he gently placed his fingers on the typewriter keys, and sat there. Sat there looking at a blank page.
Despite the growing popularity of his fiction, few were aware that Ian Phelps was missing. He had last been seen at seven o’clock on a Thursday night three months ago in April, supposedly working late in the magazine’s offices on the final chapter of Shadows with the editor. In actuality, he was working with Melody that night, the Perilous secretary who also pulled uncredited duties as the magazine’s proofreader and assistant editor.
Mel had admitted to Howard that she admired Ian’s formidable writing. But when Ian had referred to Melvin Bush’s Queen Kittala of Atlantis stories as “puerile and nearly illiterate trash,” the mousey woman snapped her blue pencil trying to contain her anger. From then on she restricted her work with Ian’s stories to bare proofreading if at all possible.
Accompanied by a bottle from Howard’s small rum-runner stash of English gin, the spirited editing and story swapping he and Mel engaged in was the polar opposite of her work with Ian. It was her talent that made Howard’s Korr stories earn three cents a word. Personally, he thought Mel’s stoic Queen Kittala a better character than his barbarian warrior. She begged to differ however, except on the point that every one of Korr’s stories ended with him about to bed yet another beautiful woman.
Despite Mel’s desires to avoid Ian when she could, she did accept a side job translating old documents from eighteenth century Greek and French from him. The work was sporadic, and the reading was bizarre occult hogwash from what she told Howard about it; lost gods, forgotten worlds and transcendence. The subject had raised their eyebrows when they realized where Ian farmed his ideas from. Yet Mel still thought the odd work was worth the extra ten dollar bill it provided now and again.
On the Thursday night in April when they disappeared, Howard had been nervous emerging from the elevator at a quarter to eight. Rolling the ring he planned to surprise her with later inside his pocket, he made his way to Mel’s office down the empty halls. The months of saving that had been required to make the reservation at Sardi’s ensured that the evening would be far grander than the dinner at Childs Mel expected.
But the office was empty, her desk bearing warm coffee and Ian’s smoking pipe still lit in the ashtray. Coarse gray pages of arcane script were strewn about the desktop, as if Ian and Mel were pouring over them only minutes before Howard had arrived. In the middle of the papers was the smooth stone paperweight he had given Melody on her birthday. Its singular crack offered a glimpse of the blue, raw beryl within that she found so beautiful.
The subsequent police investigation failed to find any trace of Ian Phelps, Miss Melody Sprague, or foul play. The unsolved mystery had given way to whispers of secret affairs and elopements in the months that followed, rumors that pained Howard deeply. Distraught, his writing suffered. When he was called in for a private meeting with Ed last week, he expected a chewing out from the editor over the lack of a new Korr story.
Instead, Ed virtually broke down and begged Howard for help. He confessed to him that he paid in advance for Shadow of the Old Gods with the work unfinished because Ian had threatened to jump ship and offer the work to rival Eldritch Mysteries Magazine instead. With the disappearance of Melody and the author, not even a draft of the serial’s final chapter could be found anywhere.
The old man was terrified that if the publisher found out they would close the doors of the struggling pulp magazine for good. Without hesitation, Howard agreed to ghostwrite an ending and keep it a secret for the man who gave him his first break. He left the office determined to do all that he could to keep the staff of Perilous from walking straight to the breadlines and Hoovervilles he saw on his way back to Brooklyn.
Shaking off an exhausted daze, Howard lifted the coffee mug at his side still focused on the silent typewriter. Choking on the stale grounds and backwash he forced a swallow. He wouldn’t last another hour without coffee. Swiveling the chair the young man rose stiffly to his feet and grabbed the cane that leaned on the desk.
Shadows swayed against the yellow glow of the naked light bulb above him while the leather and steel of his braces creaked in the night. His crippled gait had been with him since adolescence, and Howard asked for no more sympathy in public than he did limping towards his kitchenette at two in the morning. Lately when asked about it he would answer that if the Governor could run for President with his polio, then he had no excuses.
Even with his resolve, Howard had been amazed when Mel had accepted his half-joking offer of an afternoon date to Ebbets Field shortly after they met. Sharing their first box of Cracker Jack and bluffing their way into the press box was memorable enough, but it was the walk home through Flatbush he would always remember. After apologizing for his gimpy pace she wordlessly tucked her elbow next to his, and with her added strength they strode the rest of the way together.
Halfway past the perpetually unfolded Murphy bed in the middle of the room, Howard stopped his slow walk. There was a noise, a barely audible murmur as he looked at the unkempt bed. It would have been undetectable if the rest of the city had not been sleeping, and he strained to pinpoint the sound. His eyes fell to the wooden orange crate full of papers that Ed had packed from Mel’s desk.
Howard lifted his cane like a broadsword and took a wobbling step closer to the box that sat on the sheets. “If that’s you, Mr. Rat, I’m ready for the rematch.”
The noise grew a degree louder as he prodded the wooden crate with the cane. It became more distinct and he could almost make out a muffled voice. Perplexed, he looked to the old radio at the bedside and made sure it was off. Then at the bottom of the stacks of paper and manila folders, a blue light sputtered to life.
The electric glow reflected off his glasses and fearing a fire, Howard threw his cane down on the bed. Cursing and tossing manuscripts out of the box, he stopped cold when the noise coalesced into words.
“She lives, a soul striving to save worlds.” The voice was prepubescent and aethereal over the sound of falling papers.
The light at the bottom of the papers grew in intensity and Howard’s hand shook as he reached back into the crate. “W-who lives? Mel? Who are—”
“—If you are the hero’s heart, speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.” The voice was less distorted as Howard fell silent. He could now discern that it was a girl’s voice emanating from the glow underneath the papers.
“Can you hear me? Tell me who you are!” he shouted loud enough to wake the neighbors. He yanked an overburdened manila folder out of the crate and its musty contents spilled onto the floor. With a final fistful of pages he reached the bottom of the box and an azure glow illumed him. It was the paperweight.
He reached down and lifted the smooth stone, the exposed beryl within churning with brilliant phosphorescence. The supernatural light painted the room in projections of blue, and the stone vibrated in Howard’s hands as the voice returned.
“She lives, a soul striving to save worlds. If you are the hero’s heart, speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.”
His legs failed him as the message was repeated. Crashing to his knees, the scrawny man buckled over and clutched the stone tightly. The light flared into a blinding intensity and the message began to repeat itself again like a recording.
“How do I find her!?” Howard shouted over the girl’s voice.
“—speak Adraxis Alas Asmon and may the Gods save us all.”
“Adraxis, Alas… Asmon,” he said before the stone whined in his grip. He thought of Mel, her arm locked around his, before a thundering rush washed over him and turned the world electric blue.
The Cathedralic holy library of Adraxis was now a flaming ruin of books and broken columns while hundreds of goat-like Asmen wailed victory cries. They thrust weapons in salute to white-robed Caldan who stood amid the carnage on a pedestal of shattered masonry. He basked in the furious adoration while acrid smoke rose to obscure the shattered mosaics of the vaulted ceilings above, then was drawn like a maelstrom into the portal of void behind him.
Portly and bald, the beardless wizard presided over the desecration as a conductor would an orchestra. Arms spread wide, he waved his twisted shepherd’s crook of blue-white energy and completed the glowing sigil hovering before him. The arcane symbol drifted into the spiral of sorcerous markings now orbiting the star-filled iris of void behind him.
The horned, goat-faced Asmen bleated forth exaltation at the sight. They formed a fetid sea of hoary to charcoal grey that loomed heads taller than the men they had faced and slaughtered in Caldan’s unbroken victories. Now their cloven hooves stomped the rhythmic percussion that had struck terror in those who had dared to oppose them… pounding out their hatred upon the shattered flagstones of the holy library, and prison to their God.
Caldan smiled with satisfaction and looked down from his perch above the horde of goat-men. “There is little time left for an impassioned speech, Kittala… The binding is finished and the summoning is but a few sigils from completion.”
“I would rather run you through!” she grimaced against the strength of a dozen arms barely restraining her.
The wizard withdrew his attention from the captive and began to etch another glowing line in the air. “A pity. You were most eloquent rallying your quaint little army earlier… I’d dare say I was moved as the Asmen tore it to shreds!”
“They gave their lives so others could survive! I know that such a deed is incomprehensible to a fiend such as yourself, and that is why all you shall ever be is a butcherer of men!”
Caldan’s smile diminished as he marked another line in the sigil with his crook. “There. That was more along the lines of what I was expecting… Tell me, how does it feel to know that covering the priestesses’ retreat gained nothing? That my victory and the return of Asmon is inevitable and imminent?”
The statuesque amazon’s fierce beauty and strength was unrelenting as she fought to free herself from the grip of the goat-men latched onto her limbs. Clad in a shirt of blue, skirted lamellar and polished bronze greaves, it took the effort of a half-dozen Asmen to keep the warrioress in check. Grabbing a handful of towhead blonde hair from her unhelmed head, one of the brutes menaced the pale cream of her throat with a jagged blade.
“Come now, no more words of defiance from the landless queen of Atlantis? I’m disappointed!” Caldan completed the glowing sigil, his eyes focused on his work but his smile strengthening the moment he heard the monstrous horde gasp in awe. The wizard looked over his shoulder in time to see the apparition of Asmon coalescing from the blue energy of the arcane inscriptions orbiting the portal.
Cloaked in a hooded shroud, the titanic specter floated horned and translucent over the fires. The Asmen met the icy malevolence of their God’s gaze with a roaring din that shook the temple’s smoldering walls. Soon they would witness untold ages trapped in flesh come to an end: Asmon would destroy the world that was his prison… And they would ascend with him to the high-priest’s homeland as true demons once more.
Caldan turned back laughing and Kittala attempted in vain to slip free. The white-robed wizard stretched his arms wide and began the next sigil in the sequence to unravel the bindings of Adraxis upon her brother. “Only two left… And you should know that I’m going to particularly relish the sound of your screams as I follow the tether my Lord has tied to the stone in the other world. But do die knowing, Kittala, that after he devours your soul along with this world… Perhaps only a hundred million souls from there will be required to sate his remaining hunger.”
The queen’s head slumped in defeat before it was yanked upright again, forcing her to watch the coming doom. “Oh, don’t be shy. I want to see those pretty blue eyes wide with terror!” Caldan sneered before Kittala’s gaze and grimace of determination flared to deny him.
Before another moment passed, a roar echoed from the burning rafters. For a shocked instant, Caldan and his minions looked up as the bloody war-cry followed the man who leapt down upon the horde from above. Slamming into the Asmen like a guillotine of sinews and steel, his broadsword cleaved the arm off of a goat-man holding the warrioress captive.
Amid bellowed screams, Kittala grabbed the wrist of the severed limb and bashed its shoulder into the snout of another Asman restraining her. Snapping the monster’s neck in a single blow, she escaped the clutches of the remaining goat-men like a tigress. At the sight, Caldan nearly etched the next line of the sigil improperly before screaming the command to slay them both.
The blackened floor at the base of the wizard’s perch erupted into a wild fray. The queen’s rescuer downed goat-men to his left and right, weaving between blows as Asman warriors attacked from all sides. Naked from the waist up and clad in trousers and boots, his herculean physique matched the leonine ferocity of his swordplay. Yet another Asman charged him, and the warrior sent its head flying, granting Caldan his first look at the man while the minion’s corpse fell.
“Korr!” The bald wizard gasped recognizing the huge barbarian from the tales of him alone. Caldan struggled to keep his hands steady from his rage as he finished the glowing symbol with his crook. He eyed Kittala with a snarl. “You! How!? How did you bring him here!?”
Kittala smashed the severed arm she wielded into the eyes of a snarling goat-man, shattering the elbow of the improvised weapon. No sooner had that opponent turned away in agony than another charged the warrior queen. A straight kick planted her heel into the monster’s midsection, buckling it over before she relieved the Asman of its sword.
“You are as impressive as I had imagined, barbarian,” she said ducking an axe swipe behind the huge man.
“As are you, woman,” Korr grunted running an Asman through with his blade. “The child-priestess sends her regards and the blessings of Adraxis.”
Kittala grappled an Asman by the horn and raked her sword across its throat. “We will need it!”
The pair fought back to back as Caldan watched them hold-off the encircling horde. The wizard-high-priest of Asmon began his final sigil with gritted teeth, watching the warriors cut into the goat-men like scythes felling wheat. On their own, either were the match for a score of men, but united they were like elemental forces. Together they struck down wave after wave of enraged Asmen who fell into a growing circle of the dead around Korr and Kittala.
“Last minute heroics will not avail you!” Caldan shouted etching more lines into the complicated ending symbol of the summoning. Behind him, the apparition of Asmon bellowed an otherworldly call of hunger and rage. “You’re both doomed! I have already bound the Lord and myself to the stone! Even if you kill me, he’ll escape through the tether into the other world, ripping the foundations of this one asunder!”
Korr locked his blade against the haft of a goat-man’s axe and pushed the monster like a shield into a lethal blow swung by another Asman. Diving a hand into the pouch on his hip, Korr thrust its contents high into the air. “This stone, wizard?”
The wizard turned pallid at the sight the exposed beryl that churned with a fragment of Asmon’s essence. “You fool! You’ve turned the tether into a loop!”
“No,” Korr said shouldering the slain goat-man into its cohorts. “You’ve turned it into a prison!”
Caldan watched the muscled arm of the mighty barbarian pull back with the stone. In that instant he dropped his crook realizing the threat, and fowled the etching of the final sigil. “Stop! Howard! Wait!”
Korr paid no heed to the wizard’s plea as he snapped his arm forward and pitched the stone forward. The still immaterial God roared as the stone containing his crucial fleck of essence sailed towards the open portal of void that he sought to escape. Casting down his twisted staff, Caldan leapt screaming to intercept the stone… Fearing the fate within the void far more than the flames below him.
It slipped past his fingers.
Bound to the stone by the incantation, Caldan’s screams blended into the roar of Asmon. His figure stretched into a distorted ribbon of white chasing the stone as it slipped into the void. The arcane sigils orbiting the iris of the portal, and even the titanic specter of Asmon himself, collapsed into a maelstrom of blue energy. The portal devoured itself with a thunderous crack while Korr and Kittala braced themselves against the rush of air that extinguished every fire still within the temple.
The Asmen looked about in stunned silence, oblivious to the warrior queen and barbarian in their midst. The pair exchanged glances before Kittala stepped towards the horde brandishing her sword. “Who is next?!” she challenged.
Having seen their high-priest and God vanish before their eyes, Korr wasn’t surprised when the goat-men fled en masse. The pair hacked down dozens of fleeing Asmen, and they poured from of any exit they could find to escape their wrath. Finally, the duo burst from the broken gap that was once the grand doors of the temple. Felling a trio of stragglers, they charged into the light of day only to see the fleeing backsides of the Asman host.
Ready to pursue the Asmen further, Korr stopped as Kittala raised her hand. “Better to let them go. Their fear will disperse the remains of Caldan’s army faster than we ever could.”
The barbarian kept his eyes on the fleeing Asmen and nodded under his mane of dark hair. “I’ll trust your knowledge of this place, queen. I’m the stranger here.”
“Know that I have no kingdom here, barbarian, and that I have seen little of this world past the local mountains… I have been, occupied, since my arrival months ago.” Kittala plunged her sword into the corpse of a goat-man and left it standing. “I am sorry, however, to have summoned and now trapped you here as well. But Caldan had to be stopped.”
The bare-chested man of bronze looked at her with emerald eyes. “You’ve done no wrong to me. My heart welcomes a world to explore.”
“What of Howard’s soul within that heart? Does it welcome this exile from all that it had known…? Or was?”
“It welcomes any world beside the soul of his woman,” Korr said standing his blade beside Kittala’s sword. “Would her’s say the same of his?”
The statuesque woman felt the barbarian’s gaze caressing her every curve. Smiling, she nodded and offered her hand at his approach. Korr took it and entwined his powerful fingers with hers before he spoke again. “If we’re neither the written nor the writers, then what are we?”
“The journey through the stone forged an amalgam of creator and creation, for good or ill.” The warrior queen drew in a breath as the barbarian’s grip glided up the feminine strength of her arm. Welcoming the embrace, she relished the touch of his cheek along her naked neck before she pulled away with power and grace.
The woman let the great man’s arms slide to her waist. “Wanderers, adventurers, warriors,” she mused tracing a circle over Korr’s heart with a pale finger. “We were written to be these things… But this… This gift comes from the other half of our sums. I am grateful it remains.”
Mighty Korr was silent, but the gaze between the pair was an affirmation beyond language while Kittala smiled. She then pulled him to follow her. “Come, barbarian… Let us end this tale as yours always do!”
The mysterious disappearances of Ian Phelps, Melody Sprague, and Howard Tolbert were never solved. Nor did Shadows of the Old Gods see its conclusion published in the August issue of Perilous Fantasy Fiction. Instead, Editor Ed Bristow famously published the first serialized installment of Korr and Kittala: Swords Against the World… A novel written by H. Tolbert and Melvin Bush, but never officially submitted to Perilous.
Rumor says that the manuscript came into Bristow’s possession following the chaotic reclaiming of loaned documents from Tolbert’s Flatbush apartment. While the publisher was initially furious, complaints ended after the issue sold out in two weeks and went into reprints. Subsequent installments of the serialized novel reestablished Perilous’s place in the market and saved the magazine. Over a hundred more issues of Perilous would be published before it was quietly folded a decade later amid the paper shortages stemming from the Second World War.
Copyright © 2015 Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.