It is springtime in Carcossa and the cancer-trees are in bloom. The condemned, their bodies twisted and woven along the side of the temples pause in their screaming, awed by the beauty of the rosy-tinted sunset. Idiot children pause in their constant scavenging among the discarded husks of fossilized rat-carcasses and wrap themselves in yellowed ancient newspapers in an attempt at camouflage. Even the Mantis-Men, needle-thin spears held firmly in hand, pause in their perpetual hunt, turn their faceted eyes toward the sky and rattle their mandibles in mock deference.
The Yellow King’s shadow falls upon Carcossa, leaning upside-down from the heavens. His crooked crown (all thorns and jagged edges) scrapes across the streets of shattered glass. His robe rustles, caressed by the Gobi’s desert winds. A bounty of forgotten things rains down on Carcossa from the folds of his robes. The Yellow King does not speak. He surveys His domain in silence, weighing its inhabitants on a yellow scale. When He finds a sinner, the Yellow King will pluck him from the street, twist and bend him into a new shape that he will let loose to fight for a place in the darkest alleys of Carcossa, to carve for itself a Hell of streets from a Heaven in the gutters.
The Yellow King stops halfway through his surveying. Something in the dunes has caught his attention. A bactrian camel, perhaps; a hardy survivor, last of its kind that has braved the flesh-fields of Mongolia and has dragged itself into his domain. Perhaps a wailing revenant, one of the scores of creatures that perished on the day of his reckoning, bearing another one of their madcap inventions plucked from ancient texts that promised His destruction. Finally, the Yellow King hisses through gritted teeth, nods and then finally ascends into the skyline of Carcossa. The damned resume their usual screaming. A child lets out a short scream as one of the Mantis-Men skewers it with its spear, having crawled close just under sight of the Yellow King in discreet sacrilege. All in all, this looked like it was going to be a good day.
A bounty of souls was coming to Carcossa.
* * *
The water in the well was almost black with grime. Blind things wriggled in the bucket. The pilgrims drank it anyway, to sate their thirst. They huddled in the shadow cast by the tiny yurt of the Shepherd. They had come all the way from the South, crossing the powdered glass desert that was China, skirting along the outskirts of the Plateau of Leng on foot with nothing to barter for safe passage but a crate of old guns and a pitcher of purified water, distilled from the ice-caps that had formed on the beaches of R’lyeh.
“They abandoned us,” the emaciated man whispered, spitting something tiny on the sand. He crushed it with the heel of his foot. “Halfway through the second week. Sped away in their limbless steeds, as soon as we entered the Gobi. Men of Leng, men of China. They all fear the Yellow King.”
The Shepherd nodded knowingly. He had not spoken a word since they had arrived. The emaciated man appreciated his tolerance for the dozen wretches that had invaded his tiny domain, come to drink his water and invade his privacy. The Shepherd had not stopped the man once during his retelling of their long journey all the way from what used to be the jungles of Cambodia (now a clanking hell of machinery, toiling away endlessly to equip alien soldiers fighting in some impossibly complex war). There used to be fifty of them: men, women and children roused by the words of the prophet who had promised them a quiet long life under the auspices of the Yellow King.
“He promised us orchards filled with luscious bounty. Quiet homes for all. A place without bloodshed or horror. He had come from the oases, knew the secret whispers of the desert,” the wretch said, longingly. “The giggling things took him in Kon Kaen. He screamed for days. We were forced to attempt the rivers of flesh without him. There was a woman, called Ratree. She used to be a breeder for the Drownies. It’s what we call the fishmen, when we know they aren’t listening, that is. Ratree was heavy with child. The rivers of flesh were after her. They whispered that in my mind, after they caught me in one of their suckers. Did you know they are one being, altogether? An ocean of flesh stretching from Bangkok to Undon Thani and they are one and the same thing. Bloated, eyeless, forever hungry. It promised it wouldn’t hurt us. It ached for the scaly thing in her belly. The river-god chewed her up like sushi.”
The wretch stopped halfway through his story. One of the men had shot up on his feet, ran from the yurt, stopped and then dove for the sands. He came back with a thrashing little lizard in his hand. Blackened teeth bit into its neck, chopped off the tiny head. Cold blood wet his lips. One of the women ran towards him, gripped him by the ankles. She made a harsh, bleating noise with what was left of her lips. The man offered her the lizard flesh. They feasted on the meager meat and then rolled on the sand, their naked bodies abandoned in primal lust.
“Laos was worse. There are still cities left there, in Vang Vieng. They’ve struck deals with the Old Ones, taken them in like gods. Their kings live in jars inside a cupboard. When they want to address the people, great fuzzy bats with mushroom heads connect them to speakers. We asked one of them how to get here. What was the quickest way to Carcossa? She told us it wasn’t real. That the Yellow King was a figment of the infidel. ‘There are no other gods but Shub-Niggurath’ she said.” At this, the wretch spat into the sand, his spittle thick and streaked with blood. “We had no use for a forest whore, so we continued. Went straight through the warzone, past the border of Laos and into Vietnam. The Forest Whore fought the Charnel God there. We saw a thing made from writhing fornicators reduced to ash by a barrage of rainbow fire.”
The Shepherd bade the wretch to stop, went inside the yurt and brought out a wooden faggot. Removing the lid, he presented the pilgrims with his meager bounty of salted meats. He passed it around, watched the pilgrims as they broke the lizard-meat among them and chewed on it, rushing in turns to the well to quench their thirst. Returning to the wretch, the Shepherd urged him to continue.
“The Forest Whore’s armies fought with weapons that burst from their skin. Their vanguard was composed of soldiers covered in fungal growths, with long leathery wings. The Charnel God’s soldiers bombarded them from the heavens with pieces of masonry dropped from a great height by iron cubical ships. We were asked to pay a toll, when they found us. A pound of flesh, for them to grow new soldiers from for every day that we would remain in the battlefield. It took us almost two months to leave Vietnam on foot. The Charnel God’s soldiers, they would not help us. Only show up at dawn, with the elephant-shaped helmets, to ask for their fee.”
Fed and sated, the pilgrims had now fallen silent, savoring their reprieve. The wretch looked across the huddled mass of them: at the maimed legs, the severed fingers. Here, an empty socket where an eye should be. Next to that, a woman lacking both arms, her legs wriggling deftly through the sand, drawing the Yellow Sign again and again. Dreamers, staring longingly into the distance, into the heat haze behind which waited holy Carcossa.
“It shames me to admit it, but my faith wavered, when they dragged the last of us away, at the border. I found myself longing for the clanking havoc of Pnomh Penh. At least there, they would feed us, keep us warm. We did not waste away under the harsh sunlight. We would not have to care for the children born inside the wilderness. The lumbering things would take them away as soon as they were born. Teach them the chants and set them to work in the hell of gears. The babies howled all the way to Wenshan. It’s what drew the spider-merchants to us. Leng was running out of men and the spiders, they had long since become barren. The queens still bore scores of eggs, but the young would not hatch. Entire generations of them, stillborn. Miscegenation was their only option. The spiders would breed with men, give birth to abominations. The Plateau echoed with the maddening keening of the newborn. They offered to appoint me a Mandarin, wouldn’t you know? A bounty for my potent seed, only because they knew I could bear children to their Queens. But Carcossa would not leave my mind. Better to die a pauper there then a royal stud in Leng.” The wretch paused, looking into the Shepherd with eyes radiating terror “Is it like the Prophet foresaw? Is Carcossa still standing? Do the wombs of its women bear fruit? Does the Yellow King still maintain order?”
The Shepherd grinned knowingly, nodded. He patted the wretch on the back. “Can you take us there?” the wretch asked. “We do not have much. We gave away Leng’s bounty to buy our way here. We can offer nothing more than our eternal gratitude. Will you show us the way to the Promised Land?” The pilgrims had circled the Shepherd now, hands raised in prayer; children, begging for release. The Shepherd looked at all of them, grinned a grin of broken teeth and bleeding gums. Retreating into his yurt, he retrieved his gnarled stave; rolled the entirety of his worldly belongings in a single blanket and whistled. The Pilgrims followed in his footsteps, leaving nothing behind but the ghost of their passing in the sand. The oasis lingered until the sunset, when the corpse-wind blew from the orchards of Carcossa. Softly, inch by inch, it picked apart at the illusion; the yurt receded into the dunes. Water and well transmuted into base clay. Only the Pilgrim’s trail remained: a jagged line of footprints that wobbled its way to the edge of the horizon.
* * *
Carcossa’s visage shifted, turned; its gates twisted, its walls receded to the ground, sheathed in the desert floor. The cancer-orchards bloomed, spurting flesh-colored leaves from their tumorous growths. Streets, thick with congealed blood and old bones rolled back like tongues, leaving behind sprawling boulevards, dotted with buildings. The idiot children clapped their hands happily, savoring the city’s motions. The haunted crematoriums parted, squeezed themselves against the windowless hewn behemoths where the old and the frail were stuffed in tiny cells to live the rest of their lives in pitch-black horror, making way for the bustling façade of Carcossa-in-waiting, populated by the empty cut-outs that were the empty skins of its citizenry.
Mantis-Men scuttled away, hissing angrily at the rolling mountain that was the Court of the Yellow King, with is half-finished spires, its mannequin guard, its handless clock that forever chimed thirteen. The condemned were released from their joined suffering, their flesh re-knit into arcane designs that would pave the walls and roads of Carcossa. Those that would not cooperate were made mute by a simple act of flesh-melding, their bodies re-fitted to serve as foundation.
The rolling sea of old paper receded. Muzak (slow and tremulous) trickled out from ancient speakers. Carcossa retracted its fangs; stemmed its poison. It buried its long, lashing tail in the sand waiting for its prey. Upon his throne, the Yellow King rapped his talons across the rusted hills of sunken ships and chewed on sailor’s souls to pass the time.
* * *
The wretch’s knees wobbled. He fell, face-first on the hot sands, clawing uselessly at the dune, his eyes struggling to take in the sepia-colored magnificence the was Carcossa. The Shepherd paused as the wailing began from the pilgrims. He watched them writhe in ecstasy, like snakes in mating season, the females tearing off their hair, the males raking their chipped nails across their sunken cheeks. He waited, patiently, even as they grasped his ankles and kissed his feet, tears streaking down the grime on their skin.
“Carcossa!” they yelled to the heavens. “Holy city! Carcossa! Promised Land!” in between kisses to the Shepherd’s cheeks. When they had exhausted themselves in their revelry, they braved the blooming orchards. Slowly, taking in every detail, they gasped and sighed at the sight of the leaning buildings, the bustling crowds of people. Huddled together, the Pilgrims kept quiet, never once raising their eyes to the passers-by, whose long flowing robes flapped in the scented corpse-wind. From afar, the madmen began to howl. The clock of the Yellow King began to chime, great bells masking the cries of the suffering.
“Will we see Him? Will we see the Yellow King?” the wretch asked the Shepherd. When he nodded. The wreatch grasped the Shepherd by the cheeks, pressed his forehead to his. “A king’s bounty! Nothing less than you deserve, when I am on the right side of his throne! And you will be acolyte, my servant. I will teach you the secrets, the means of etiquette. You and I, in orbit around God!”
The Shepherd smiled knowingly, moved across the boulevards, herding the women whose eyes would stray to the dust-caked windows, whose eyes would catch a glimpse of the children, their heads popping from around the corners to watch the faithful herded to the slaughter. One of them (a girl of six years) walk-crawled her way toward a man who had stopped to marvel at the painted bounties of a bench. Her tiny hands reached out to tug at the pilgrim’s fingers, just as the Shepherd smacked them away with a snap of his cane. Screaming, the child retreated in the darkness, just as Carcossa once again begun to shift.
By the time the pilgrims had slithered into the shadow of the Yellow King’s Court, Carcossa had slithered back into original form. The boulevards were choked with shadow, the gutters overflowed with the corpses of rats. Somewhere, cats began to howl as they went in heat, excited by the bloodshed. Subtly, the Court began to slid away as soon as the pilgrims stepped through its threshold. The frescoes hewn from the condemned began to howl. The Yellow King’s throne unraveled in a shower of twisted metal.
Konstantine Paradias is a jeweler by profession and a writer by choice. His short stories have been published in the AE Canadian Science Fiction Review, Cycatrix Magazine and the BATTLE ROYALE Slambook by Haikasoru. His short story, “How You Ruined Everything” has been included in Tangent Online’s 2013 recommended SF reading list and his short story “The Grim” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.