This story is paired with “The King in Yellow (Suite)” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
“The Palace of Hastur has fallen to madness.”
The speaker limped ahead of his caravan; a weather-beaten stage mask covered his face except for his parched and reddened mouth. Behind him lingered his road-weary company: slouching old women heaped with rags, crying children, very few men. All were masked; some blindfolded.
The speaker’s voice, though stripped hoarse, was forceful and halted the two robed swordsmen riding in the opposite direction.
“Carcosa is near ruins,” he continued. “We journey for Aldebar and I suggest that you two come with us unless you mean to die.”
Calvados—the larger and more rugged of the pair—rose in his saddle. His grip tensed around the sword curved across his lap. His partner, though younger and leaner, had a lifetime of suffering etched around his keen, dark eyes. He raised a naked hand—a sign for his companion to hold. This is Sarza.
Calvados released his sword and groomed the shock of gray hair at his chin. Under his breath, he said, “Such a sad-looking circus.”
“You are not performers,” Sarza said, scrutinizing the travelers. “Why do you wear masks?”
Several moans erupted from behind the masked wanderer—the curse, the curse! His hand flew to his own mask as if afraid that it had slipped. He then composed himself and announced, “In the King’s absence, a usurper has taken the throne—a mad sorcerer!”
He monitored the swordsmen’s silence and then continued, “The night of the Grand Masquerade! Only those who did not unmask were spared from his curse of madness!”
Sarza noticed Calvados trying to contain his amusement. The speaker noticed also but continued, “Unfortunately, very few heard the Queen’s warning.”
Calvados retracted his smile. Sarza drew a measured breath and locked eyes with the wanderer.
“You have news of the Queen?” he asked, a knot rising in his throat.
The wanderer answered, “We fear the worst, but the night we fled, a light still shone from her window.”
Soon, the swordsmen had left the caravan far behind in their dust, and the arid lands around them became the rocks and countless, shallow lakes outlying Carcosa. And with the fading light of twin suns at their backs, they arrived in a dismal harbor village on the banks of Hali.
Calvados led them slowly along the docks, all of which were gated or deserted. Sarza had placed his trust in his companion to arrange passage and now his trust was failing. Apart from their burden of weapons, they had almost nothing to bargain with: a few coins, their tired mounts, and the masks—the nomads in the desert would not peacefully let them ride on unless they each took one.
At last, they arrived at an isolated boathouse at the farthest end of the village. From the locked gate hung a sign of rough, flattened iron bearing the now familiar symbol that meant no passage. However, inside the structure was the faint glow from a fire. Calvados struck the sign repeatedly with the hilt of his dagger.
Answering the noise was a rugged-looking woman in a leather apron. She stepped into view and approached along the weathered boardwalk. She squinted up at the larger swordsman as she peeled her gloves from her stout, scarred arms.
“Calvados?” she asked. “Brother?”
* * *
The three of them brooded around a small, rickety table with a lantern at the center. Thula, the boatmistress stared into the flame. A forth, her apprentice—a haunted, young girl—clung to the shadows, watching with suspicion.
“Very few travelers have lately returned from the city,” said Thula. “Those that have do not speak of it. They only whimper in the shadows by day and howl in the streets at night.” She stared at Calvados. “I would do anything for blood but you are asking me to die.”
“Not necessarily,” he said, “and not needlessly.”
She switched her gaze to Sarza. “I hold nothing against our lovely Queen, but I care for her sake only as much as she cares for mine.”
“If she lives, she cares,” said Sarza.
The boatmistress thought on this. “Of course, there is also the matter of the unguarded treasures of Carcosa, quite a tempting opportunity for two former guards of the court.”
Sarza rose from the table. “That is a matter for you to discuss with your brother. There is only one treasure that I intend to claim. The rest you may quibble over as you like.” He regarded Calvados firmly. “But, we must leave now.”
* * *
Thula shuttered the boathouse and gave her assistant every coin she had plus the ones she collected from the swordsmen. Sarza witnessed their tearful embrace and her whispered promise to return. He was saddened, but soon, the three were aboard the ferry. It was small and sturdy, like Thula herself, and the pressure engine she had built was dutifully kept. The ragged canvas that hung over the rear half of the deck was sufficient to keep the engine and its fuel out of the sun and mist. The posts also held oil lanterns that Thula lit while the vessel built steam. Soon after, they watched the shore vanish behind them, and then as the first of the twin suns descended into the vast, still waters of Hali.
* * *
In Carcosa, the time between the first sunset and the second is called the Hour of Long Shadows. To the devout, it is a time of deep reflection, to weigh one’s burdens and to consider one’s actions. The ritual was commonly associated with soldiers, and Thula didn’t question when the two swordsmen suddenly fell silent and sat at opposite ends of the deck.
Calvados laid out a leather mat around which he set his two short swords and more knives than it seemed plausible to carry. One by one, he polished them with a cloth. Sarza’s only sword was long and slender and was worn at his side. He laid it beside an ornate pressure-thrower and roughly a dozen cast-iron bolts. But it was the mask the performers had forced upon him that held his attention. It was plain, but handsome—gold, with a red, silken ribbon to tie it. He secured it to his face and looked out at his shadow as it stretched over the water. He thought again of his queen.
* * *
Sarza was more than a guard of the court; he was the favorite escort of the beautiful and beneficent Queen Cassilda, and the two of them had the misfortune of falling in love. King Yhtill was again away on one of his strange expeditions when he learned of the infidelity. He promptly returned to sentence Sarza to death. It was the only time the two men were face to face. And though Sarza was the man condemned, it was the king’s face that betrayed a man at the end of his time.
Ever resourceful, Cassilda secretly arranged Sarza’s escape and staged his execution. The king resumed his expedition thinking justice had been done. But, to protect their secret, Sarza had to flee city. Years later, in an unnamed desert village far from Carcosa, Sarza met the guard Calvados, also banished from the city, and began to prepare for the day when he would return for his lost love.
Now, it seems, he waited one day too long.
* * *
The dense, cold fog that rolls down from the northern lakes struck with very little warning. Thula spotted it first, far off the starboard side. One moment, the sky was rich with stars; the next, a wave of grey mist bore down on them like a devouring giant, shaking the vessel and ringing the warning bell, though the sound was deadened in the gloom. Thula slowed the ferry. Even in the eerie halo of lamplight, they could not see from one end of the craft to the other. Better to wait until the fog thinned than to risk speeding off course.
All aboard agreed that they had never seen weather quite so strange.
The three travelers were warming themselves by the engine when Calvados pointed out that Sarza still wore the mask.
“Do you think there was any truth in that vagabond’s warning?” asked Calvados.
Sarza’s eyes still searched the mist, “Perhaps, but there are other reasons for outlaws to wear masks.”
Something brushed the side of the hull and Thula cut the engine completely. They all looked over the stern and discovered the body of a man turning in the wake. Calvados drew it closer with one of the long paddles meant to push the ferry through shallow water. He caught sight of the dead man’s crazed expression and shoved it back beneath the surface. They all looked up at once.
The fog had begun to thin, and now they saw similar shapes floating throughout the water. The full moon slowly brightened over the scene like a lantern and continued to brighten until its shape appeared to eclipse the towers that appeared in the distance. They had somehow arrived at Carcosa.
The two swordsmen had long looked forward to the day when they would again set eyes on their homeland. They had heard the rumors, but they were not prepared to see the dark, smoldering landscape that emerged from the mist. It was once a view that thrilled and inspired the swordsmen. Now, it filled them with strange horror.
* * *
The ferry was small enough that it did not need to go all the way around the eastern peninsula to reach the capital; it could pass directly through the canals into the bay on the other side. They would save precious time, but they would risk exposure. They doubted their decision, however, as soon as they passed into the first channel. The ruined streets were not empty. Veiled in smoke and mist, and backlit by random fires, were the denizens of a new, wasted city. Silently, they crept along with the ferry or loped ahead to wait as it passed. They never quite walked.
Calvados, who now wore his own mask, watched a group of figures hurry to the tunnel ahead and readied his swords. Sarza stood at the bow sighting them with his crossbow. Thula tried to keep focused on her steering but could not help but notice one deranged man leaning out over the channel wall, pointing wildly at her and shrieking.
As they slipped into the darkness of the tunnel, the shrieking spread to a chorus of crazed voices all around them. Suddenly, something metallic clattered across the deck and the entire craft lurched when it caught on the hull. There was another clatter and Thula cried out as she was dragged forcefully by her leg and pinned against the stern. Calvados appeared beside her. He drove a blade between the links of the hooked chain that held her and snapped it with a firm twist of his arm.
Sarza took one of the oil lamps from its post and hurled it. It smashed onto a narrow walkway that ran along the side, setting it and several crazed men hiding there ablaze. As they threw themselves screaming into the water, Sarza quickly picked off three more with his crossbow. The chains they held slid limply into the canal.
Thula broke the hook from the hull but left the one that still pierced her ankle. She then quickly stoked the engine back to full speed and took them on the most direct route out of the canals and into the bay.
* * *
The ferry charged through waters clogged with derelict ships, debris, and more bodies. The once great Palace of Hastur loomed closer and closer until the travelers found themselves in its shadow staring up at its sheer walls. They traced the massive foundation until they came to an undistinguished spot beneath one of the wide bridges that connected the central structure to the three surrounding islands. Above them, the mindless citizens howled and beat at the massive gates.
Sarza secured a rope to a heavy iron ring in the wall and then signaled for Thula to back the vessel away. A section of wall groaned open to expose a very narrow and very steep set of steps ascending into the darkness. Sarza then cinched his reloaded crossbow tighter across his back and bounded effortlessly across the taut rope. From the other side, he began to pull the ferry toward the opening.
Thula sat down with her hastily bandaged leg across her lap and began to fill her pipe. She watched from the corner of her eye as Calvados climbed to join Sarza in the entrance.
“Bring me back something nice,” she said.
Calvados looked back but she would not meet his eyes. A silent moment passed, then Sarza laid a hand on his shoulder, urging him to hurry. They both then disappeared into the darkness of the waiting passage.
* * *
The swordsmen reemerged into a neglected recess of the main hall. In the larger space, the lantern they carried did little to disturb the shadows that clung stubbornly to the rows of thick columns. As they ran, the oppressive blackness descended on them from the high-vaulted space above where the painted likenesses of the more honored sons of Hastur sulked unseen.
It was not by sight, but by memory that the swordsmen arrived at the base of the grand stairway. Across the hall, was the formidable inner gate that blocked the dark passage that lead to the main gate, behind which the deranged citizens of Carcosa clamored to get in. Their muted cries haunted the darkness.
Sarza noticed a dim light at the top of the stairs and handed the lantern to Calvados. “I won’t be long,” he said.
Calvados smiled at his friend. “I will be ready.”
The swordsmen then departed each other’s company, Calvados into the deeper shadows and Sarza upwards toward the light.
* * *
When Calvados arrived at the treasury he found it open and unguarded, and with many of its riches spilling carelessly into the outer hall. With one hand holding the lantern and the other near his swords, he stepped cautiously inside. All around, the treasures of Carcosa lay in disarray. The sight thrilled him and saddened him all at once. He began to pick through them, passing over the more ordinary treasures for articles most worthy of their burden.
It was then that he saw the Seal of Hastur.
Curiously, it lay in the wreckage of its glass display, but was otherwise unharmed. It was a modest but handsome treasure—a polished onyx disc inlaid with gold—but its worth was mostly as an artifact. Designed by Lord Hastur himself, it evoked Carcosa’s long, irregular islands amid vast, black lakes. It was meant to be carried by the king’s emissaries traveling abroad. To even hold it was a famous honor; it was history itself.
Though he was no longer in the king’s service, Calvados felt honor-bound to salvage the seal before it fell into less worthy hands. He tore away a small portion of his robes and used that to pluck the seal from the broken glass. Carefully, he picked out the shards and tucked it beneath his belt. It was with considerably less care that he emptied a small chest onto the piles and began to refill it as he liked.
Sarza followed a trail of dimly flickering sconces to the closed door of the queen’s library. If she was to be found, he reasoned, it would be there. It was the duty of the queen to keep the record of Carcosa. Cassilda, however, saw it as a privilege. Since the time she was a young queen—barely more than a bright, beautiful child—she was the medium by which the story of Carcosa was committed to history. The events she described were rarely as lovely as the manner in which she described them. In her practiced hand, the most ordinary occurrence would be imbued with such elegance and insight that it made one weep to read it. Sarza valued her words perhaps more than anyone in the court. He read them secretly when the palace was sleeping, often even before the king.
Sarza opened the door and immediately felt foolish for doubting the queen’s well-being. The library was much like he had remembered, bathed in warm candlelight and touched with the queen’s fragrance. Along the wall to his side were the individual volumes of the legacy still in their rightful place. He ran his fingers along their tall spines. The oldest ones were first, musty and bronzed from innumerable handlings. They continued, row upon row, following the line of Hastur through the ages to his last descendent where Cassilda’s writing began. There was a gap where the current one should be.
Across the room, the queen’s desk was crowded with several strange instruments that Sarza had never seen before, possibly souvenirs from the king’s travels. Among them was a curious model of a world made mostly of oceans. There was, however, no book here either. The queen’s quill lay neatly in its long, carven box beside a stoppered inkbottle. Sarza dabbed at a black speck on the glass and rubbed wet ink between his fingers.
It was then that he noticed the odor of smoke.
The door at the back of the library opened into a short, shadowy gallery. Sarza entered and crept silently beneath the shafts of moonlight slanting through the small, high windows. Just ahead, behind elaborately carven black doors, was the king’s private study. There, the king had spent countless hours pouring over the many obscure and ancient books in his collection, but Sarza was most used to seeing it deserted. It wasn’t until he drew nearer and saw the glimmer of firelight through the wrought-iron vent near the ceiling that he considered an actual encounter with the king.
In one deft movement, Sarza planted a foot against a stone pedestal and boosted himself onto the stout, wooden beams. He moved to the one nearest to the vent and peered through, a shadow falling across his mask.
Though she was turned away, it was clearly Cassilda that stood before the roaring hearth, her unmistakable figure faintly visible through the loose fabric of her gown. It had been long since Sarza had last seen his former lover and he became lost in the details of her—the curls of her sumptuous, dark hair gathered loosely above her head—her lithe neck and naked shoulders. Suddenly, she turned her head and Sarza was jolted back to his senses. She too wore a mask—an ornate butterfly design pinned into her hair. It was beautiful, but it made her seem rigid and remote.
Sarza followed her gaze and suddenly felt an icy hand grip his insides. A figure was seated just outside the ring of firelight. Though soiled and badly worn, he wore the long, royal-yellow mantle of the king, its tattered ends coiled at his feet like serpents sleeping beside the fire. Scraps of the same material covered his arms down to his bulky fingertips, like moldering bandages. In his lap lay the missing volume. Delicately, he turned the pages, staining them where he touched them.
“Such, a wonderfully sad story,” said the figure in a voice that sounded as if it were dredged from the depths of Hali, “so elegant, so tortured.”
He leafed through several blank pages near the end and made some inarticulate rasp deep inside his throat. He then closed the book and held it out to the queen. “But, there is still more to be written.”
“And who shall read it!?” Cassilda outburst was so sudden that Sarza was uncertain that it came from her. She faced the stranger but made no move towards the book. “Our house is empty because of you!”
Sarza craned his head to better view the stranger. Could this ragged specter actually be the king?
The stranger replied, almost as if to Sarza’s unspoken question. “I am the final son of Hastur,” he grumbled. “There will be no further need for heirs. But, if you wish to honor them, I can think of no better way than what you have written here.”
The queen stared again at the fire. “I will write no more. I wish to leave.”
“You are asking my permission this time.”
“I wouldn’t if it were possible otherwise.”
The stranger lolled in the shadow as if in contemplation, then remarked, “Pointless. There is nowhere you can go that is beyond my reach.”
The queen responded quietly, but her anger had not cooled, “Perhaps not, but there are places that you have not yet completely spoiled.”
The stranger drummed his wrapped fingers on the cover. “You require an ending, and not the storybook one that you are imagining. You do not write fiction.”
Slowly, he rose from his seat and the tatters of his robes slid into a new arrangement around his legs, seemingly of their own will. With silent, measured footsteps, he approached Cassilda, the book cradled in his arm like a sick child. He stood taller than her by a good measure but Sarza could still not see his shadowed face from his hiding place. He could only see Cassilda grimace and hold her breath as the stranger delicately placed a wrapped finger beneath her chin and raised her face toward his.
Sarza wanted nothing more at that moment than to storm the library and dash the stranger’s brains against the hot stones of the hearth; if he was indeed the king, then so much more the reason. But, Cassilda was much more important than vengeance. He mustn’t perform anything so drastic, at least until she was safely away. In the meantime, he was powerless but to watch the grotesque drama play out before him.
“I am no fool,” said the stranger, “I know he still lives.”
Sarza pulled away from the grate, into deeper shadow. He teased his sword from his sheath.
Cassilda stayed her ground, defiant but visibly trembling. The stranger let his hand drop and then again held the book out for her to take.
“It doesn’t matter. Finish, and I will be done with you.”
Cassilda wiped her chin with the back of her fist, and then snatched the book away. The stranger stepped backward and motioned to the doors.
“You may go,” he said.
Suddenly, there was movement in the dark corners at either end of the room. A pair of armed sentries that Sarza had not before noticed stepped, in unison, into the firelight. The queen, familiar with their presence, waited for them to take their positions beside her. As they escorted her from the room, the stranger took her place staring somberly at the fire.
Sarza watched from his perch as the doors beneath him swung inwards and Cassilda and the guards entered the gallery. She held the book tightly to her chest. The doors closed behind them but Sarza did not linger to consider the mechanics that allowed them to do so by themselves. Swift and silent, he skimmed along the rafters with his sword in hand.
Just before they reached the queen’s study, Sarza dropped between Cassilda and the first guard, simultaneously knocking him off balance and moving her safely to the side. He then turned and pierced the second guard swiftly through the throat. He was about to confront the other when the sight of his current opponent’s face spoiled his heroics. It appeared to be nothing more than a featureless mass of soft, grey clay. The wound, furthermore, did not bleed—the guard simply fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Sarza then turned to face the surviving guard but saw that he too had fallen but without being dealt a lethal stroke. His face was like the other guard’s, blank and repulsive. Instantly, the flesh of both bodies began to crack and smolder and then crumble into a pool of fine, black sand.
Sarza had never before seen magic like this and might have lingered over the remains had not Cassilda taken his hand and forced him to face her. In the narrow span of a moment, the eyes behind her mask flashed with affection, then fear, then anger.
“You must leave! You are not safe here!” she cried as she began to pull him towards her study.
Sarza pointed back toward the black doors. “Who is in there?!” he demanded, his own anger building. “Yhtill, the king?!”
“He no longer cares for that name.”
When she looked back, the library doors stood open and in the doorway stood the degenerate king. His face, though now unshadowed, remained murky and expressionless, his eyes hollow but his gaze fixed. Behind him, the hearth blazed with demonic fury. He then extended one warped hand toward Sarza but the queen threw herself between them.
“No!” she cried, throwing her arms wide as if to shield Sarza.
The king paused, and then craned his strangely hairless head as if to hear though he seemed also to now lack visible ears.
“Too soon!” he barked, cryptically.
Suddenly, he vanished into an eruption of thick, yellow smoke. It tumbled through the gallery toward Sarza and the queen. Instantly, they were consumed in a torrent of horror and confusion.
* * *
Calvados was busy at the main gate. Summoning all of his considerable strength, he labored to raise the last iron barricade which secured the massive door that held back the ravening mob that currently surged against it. He meant to open it quickly, before the crowd could react—but already, the wood cracked and the hinges buckled from the additional strain. The inner gate had been easy to open, but as he crossed the dark, lonesome threshold—lighting what few torches that would still ignite—fear had begun to take hold. He had been too clumsy with the other reinforcements and he must have been heard. Now, he had to move even faster.
He leapt back just as the barricade fell, and the crowd poured through even more violently than he had anticipated. First there were snatching hands and sneering faces, then whole bodies; they spilled across the flagstones and scrambled to catch Calvados as he ran just ahead of them. Just past the inner gate, he slowed to retrieve the small chest he had left there. His pursuers were upon him so quickly that he had to swing it like a bludgeon to keep them from dragging him down. An impact with one of the crowd caused the chest to burst open and loose its contents upon the floor to be trampled. In a last desperate effort, Calvados flung the empty chest and ran for the grand stairway. He had ascended only partly when he was halted by a dreadful spectacle only a moment before it engulfed him.
* * *
The smoke cleared slowly. When all that remained was a noxious stench and a thin, yellow miasma, Sarza realized he was not dead. Cassilda was huddled beside him, trembling and holding her mask in place; the book had slid from her lap and lay beneath her. They were both now in the open-air court atop the palace roof high above the city. Banners bearing the Sign of Hastur fluttered in the warm breeze. A brilliant moon presided over the sky. In another time, this was where the kings of Carcosa held court. It was here that Sarza received his death sentence.
The mob had been silenced. Their sundry remains lay scattered over the court like the petals from some great, charnel flower. Calvados, slavering and near hysterics, but intact, crawled among the once-living wreckage. His mask had fallen. He flinched as a ragged figure stepped across his path as he went to the parapet overlooking Hali.
The sorcerer-king gazed out over the vast, moonlit waters and appeared to diminish slightly. He placed a hand over his face as if sulking. After a moment, he pulled at his expressionless face and it came off in his hand like a mask. He turned it back to face him and then he turned to face the others.
The face beneath swelled where an impression had been left. It expanded to form a grotesque approximation of a man’s head. The flesh was pale and segmented like a massive, bloated worm. The features were set too high and too far apart. The mouth, wide and thin, was crowded with irregular, pointed teeth; the eyes were small and dark and deeply set. There was no nose.
The beast looked down at the mask and grumbled, “The last vestige of my mortality.”
The survivors were too stunned to speak—to do anything but observe and listen to the strange voice come from that terrible mouth.
“Preserved by the strange waters of another world, it is all that remains of my former self—of a body no longer suited for my needs.”
The beast looked at Cassilda on her knees and then at Sarza with his protective arm around her. He then walked to the center of the court where the king’s throne—his throne—presided over the scene. He stepped on the dais but he did not sit. Instead, he ran his bandaged hand over the weathered woodwork.
“I have explored beyond the farthest reaches of the universe,” the beast resumed. “I have made allies with beings it would madden you to even contemplate; I have seen all the splendors that there are to see, and I speak plainly when I say that their beauty is pale next to yours, my queen.”
He offered a hand out towards Cassilda but she did not move. He then allowed his hand to drop and looked back at the throne. He delicately set his mask there, standing it against the back so it faced outwards.
“I admit that I am jealous,” he concluded.
Calvados suddenly charged the beast with both swords drawn. Sarza tensed to do likewise, but Cassilda held him firmly by the arm.
“No!” she pleaded.
The beast merely turned his head toward Calvados and the swordsman fell before he could take more than three strides. He writhed and moaned on the ground as he began to crumple from within. Soon, he was little more than a gasping corpse. The beast went to his side and crouched over him.
Sarza was enraged but Cassilda’s agonized pleas, as well as his own confusion and fear, kept him from acting. He could only watch as this strange, new enemy reached into his companion’s robes and retrieve a small, wrapped bundle. The beast then opened it and removed the artifact.
“It was once a great honor to carry the Sign of Hastur,” he said. “—to be in the King’s trusted service.”
He returned the sign to Calvados, placing it gently on his chest and then stood. As he stepped over him, the tatters of his robes unfurled in such a way that they completely concealed the fallen swordsman. Once the beast had passed, Calvados had vanished utterly.
Sarza rose, breaking loose of Cassilda’s restraint despite her continued protests. He took the crossbow from his back and aimed.
“No! You cannot harm him!” she cried out.
The beast faced Sarza. He closed his small eyes and held out his arms as if to welcome the attack. Sarza fired. The bolt struck solidly into the beast’s chest but he remained unfazed except that he now began to chuckle. Sarza fired a second shot and it struck where the beast’s forehead might have been. The beast laughed harder.
Sarza then turned and fired his final bolt at the throne. The mask fractured like porcelain into a dozen pieces.
The beast roared, and a concussive blast sent Sarza flying backward where he collided with one of the court’s towering columns and then the court itself. Fighting for breath and clutching his ribs, he found his footing and again and took up the nearest convenient sword. He made for the throne where the beast now stood, holding the pieces of his old face, convulsing from misery.
Cassilda appeared suddenly, throwing herself in his path, the book again cradled against her.
“Come!—we will not have another chance to run!” she said, her voice wavering with desperation.
Sarza halted. He watched the beast as the pieces of the mask tumbled from his grasp. His convulsions began to intensify. Soon, the beast’s body began to elongate and distort. The shredded ends of his robes began to lash out in every direction like a hundreds of long, twitching fingers. Sarza needed to see no more, but before he and the queen could back away, they witnessed the beast’s robes open and spill forth a mass of writhing shapes, like serpents tumbling from a basket. As they unraveled, they grew and entwined with the beast’s bandages until they were indistinct from each other, combining and reforming in ways impossible to describe. Nor did Sarza and the queen linger to find the words. They ran in extreme haste to the nearest stairwell. And as they plunged downward through the darkness, the sound of things slithering across the stones was never far behind.
* * *
When, at last, Sarza emerged with the queen from the passage by which he had entered the palace, he was relieved to see the single lantern dimly lighting the deck of the ferry waiting just bellow. He was disheartened, however, after making the short drop and helping the queen do the same, to find the craft abandoned. Fresh blood stained the boards and mottled the canvas. Thula’s pipe lay shattered by her seat near the engine.
In the darkness above, the sound of the mob had been replaced by the sound of tumbling stonework and the cacophonous wail of the beast. Debris also began to fall from the bridge, churning the water and pelting the deck. Sarza hurried to unmoor the craft and stoke the engine. Simply being crushed and drowned was no longer an option after witnessing other, much more extravagant horrors.
At a safer distance, the reunited couple watched as pale shapes crept over the walls of the palace and violently forced themselves between the stones like monstrous vines. Sections of the façade crumbled and fell as the beast continued to grow. Its arms wound around the bridge which had moments earlier sheltered the ferry. As they constricted, the structure collapsed with a thunderous crash. Further into the water, as the mists began to cohere around the ferry, the two survivors watched as the once-magnificent Palace of Hastur crumpled beneath the massive, tangled horror that writhed obscenely in the moonlight.
* * *
In Carcosa, the time between the first sunrise and the second is called The Hour of Awakening. It is a time of optimism and gratitude for the coming day. But, in the dense mist, the movement of the suns was indiscernible, and for far too long, the craft seemed to idly linger despite the constant working of the engine.
Cassilda, while at first relieved to be away, still did not remove her mask and, without explanation, insisted that Sarza do likewise. Later, as hope continued to dwindle and the last of the fuel was exhausted, they seemed no nearer to escaping the mist. The queen became deeply sullen. After the engine finally expired, she ceased to speak and would only stare into the fog. Sarza’s attempts at conversation were ignored, and eventually, he resigned to watching her sulk as he listlessly stirred the still water behind them with one of the paddles.
Sarza was relieved when Cassilda eventually moved. She positioned the book in her lap and leafed through the pages to where her writing ended and the blank pages began. Lacking a proper quill, she drew a barbed pin from her hair and pierced deeply the delicate flesh of her forearm.
Shocked, Sarza ran to crouch beside her, folding his hand over the wound.
“No!” he protested. “If you must have blood, take mine!” He offered his own sun-darkened forearm.
The queen then smiled and laid a hand delicately against his cheek.
“My love,” she said, “you have seen much this last night but you know so little.”
“Tell me, then, please!”
Through their masks, they searched each other’s eyes.
She said, “I’m afraid that an explanation will do little to ease your mind.”
* * *
Sarza released the queen’s wounded arm. The blood had slowed but now began to run again.
“Now, it’s clear that my blood serves no other purpose.”
Sarza, too, became despondent. But after a long while of watching Cassilda commemorate the final days of Carcosa in her own blood, a strange calm settled over him and he slept. When he awoke, the journal lay where she had sat, but she was gone. He didn’t bother looking for her or calling out her name. Instead, he removed his mask and dropped it so it floated on the rippling current. With his mind still dim, he took the book in his hands and briefly considered dropping it as well. Instead, he just allowed himself to watch as the mask sank into the quiet depths. By the time he raised his head and saw the outline of an unfamiliar shore he had forgotten what he was looking for.
Jon Carroll Thomas is a Pittsburgh writer that likes to dabble in yellow. The Outcasts of Carcosa is a swashbuckling but downbeat tale that embarks from Chambers’s classic imagery and suggests what may have transpired in the final moments of his doomed kingdom.