The Three Who Were Called
Yucta Axotylata was weary. Weary of Pavis, Lunars, barbarians, newtlings and river gods. In the cool of the evening of the Parrot in Satyr’s Moon, Year of the Titan he wandered north of the town to where the bullrushes of the great wetlands of the Zola Fel valley surrounded him. The sun set over the wide river and the plains beyond. He listened to the rustle of the wind in the reeds and the sound of frogs croaking. After a time he looked up and saw a distant dark figure whose eyes only were clear.
“Come,” said the figure “and great power will be yours.”
Yucta scoffed, until he saw on the figure’s beckoning hand the runes which marked his own — the runes of the River Voices of Zola Fel.
“Davros…?” Could his Quarmallian friend have somehow returned from the dead?
With a start, the figure turned and fled.
“Wait! Stop in the name of Zola-Fel!” Yucta gave chase across the reeds. Ahead he saw a low mound, dark against the evening sky. Light spilled from the outline of a door in the mound. The dark figure was frantically trying to slam the door, but Axotylata was gaining too fast and he fled inside. Yucta followed him down some torch-lit steps. Even now, Yucta realised that the figure did not move or act like Davros Thanatos. But the runes — who was this man?
In the pilot’s chair of the Free Lunch, Landen Donovan committed and locked in the course he had plotted. Interplanetaries were easy, mostly mathematics, very little precog. Mostly waiting, in fact. Landen didn’t enjoy waiting. The ship was quiet: time to relax. He took a stim mixed maybe with just a dash of hallucinogen. After a time he heard footsteps. He turned and saw a stranger dressed in dark clothes — a stowaway!
“Hey you!” Donovan gave chase, and his quarry clambered down an access ladder. Donovan climbed after him. After a while, the rungs reached bottom — and it was rock. Donovan allowed himself a small smile. Something was happening, something neither entirely unfamiliar nor unwelcome. He lightly stepped from the bottom rung of the access ladder and down the stone steps beyond.
In the land of dream, Tech-na-chuk-chuk-wakae-hazar needed to clear his head of that thrice-damned pot. Not a drug, like that smoked by Grandfather Wa’aii to prolong his time in the Dreamlands, but an imaginary one, a pot which the old man had Tech-na endlessly visualise and mentally destroy. Day after day, Tech-na had sat alone in a dark room in Wai’ii’s fine house in Ulthar imagining the pot, imagining every detail of it. Now he needed fresh air and space. He walked from Ulthar across the bright fields to the Enchanted Forest. As the forest closed about him, a dark stranger suddenly shot across the path at great speed. Tech-na tried to follow but could not catch him. Strange wisps of darkness lingered where the stranger had been, slowly vanishing like morning mist.
Into the Dreamlands
Yucta Axotylata and Landen Donovan emerged from tunnels and faced each other curiously across a large cavern illuminated by a pillar of purple and white flame. Two bearded priests were there. Yucta noticed a brief trace of surprise of their faces. One looked into their eyes and turned to his companion. “We cannot interfere. They must pass.”
Nasht, the second priest said:
“Your lives and souls are in great peril. There is One who covets them, and you have fallen into His trap. I say this but once — the only way you can escape Him is to find your friend, who has passed before you. Find him and return with him and that which he carries. Return here and thus back to the waking world. Fail in these things and you are lost.”
The other priest, Kaman-Thah, gestured to stone table with wine and parcels of food. “Shambhala, food for your journey.” Landen sniffed the food packets with approval and helped himself.
Yucta and Landen took their leave of the priests and descended Seven Hundred Steps of Deeper Slumber. The rock of the tunnel gradually became dense green vegetation. Yucta frowned “An underground forest?”. Landen just grinned. They emerged from the tunnel into a dense wood, filled with strange rustling sounds. Lying on the ground in front of them was the wild-looking shaman Tech-na-chuk-chuk-wakae-hazar, throwing dirt in the air. He sat up and peered at them, smiling crookedly.
The three dreamers shared their tales and soon realised that they all sought the dark stranger. They resolved to travel together. Not really knowing which way to go, they picked a path and headed off. While in the wood a strange orange serpent crossed their path, and Yucta freed a trapped Zoog. Eventually the wood thinned and they found themselves on the banks of a wide river. Tech-na said upstream. Landen said downstream. Yucta used his River Eyes and decided on upstream, so thence they travelled. They came upon a great temple with seven spires of emerald which spanned the river. Entering, they found four small pools surrounding a great central shaft, below which the river rushed. From these pools emerged four watery priests of the River God. Yucta heard his name as Zola Fel; the others might have heard another. When asked of the dark stranger the priests replied coldly that he had come that way a week past and stolen the River God’s pearl. They demanded that Yucta (as a River Voice of Zola Fel) return the pearl. Wearily, he agreed. Tech-na mused that the dark stranger seemed to have compressed time somehow, or perhaps time merely flowed in strange ways in the land of dream.
The travellers crossed the great river at the temple and now they needed to go downstream. Tech-na concentrated…and made real a boat with more than a slight resemblance to that pot, bobbing on the river. The three boarded the pot-boat and floated down the river (using some oars which Tech-na also dreamed up, and Yucta’s boating skill) singing
Three Men in a Tub
And who d’ye think they’d be?”
That night they stayed in the barn of some river folk, a couple and their visiting granddaughter. The couple said that the dark stranger — who called himself the Boatman — had stayed in their hamlet and was heading downriver to Thran the Lovely. As they drifted to sleep on the warm hay Landen and Yucta overheard the grandmother telling a fairy story about how bad children are taken away by Vredni Vorastor, the Man in the Moon, to live in his mansion of bones and fungi.
Thran the Beautiful
Thran’s golden spires and impossibly high walls were visible long before they reached that city. There, a red-robed sentry demanded three impossible dreams in order to enter. Only Tech-na could come up with such, but the guard let slip that a merchants’ quarter on the far side of the walls was open to all. Tech-na entered and marveled, but the Boatman had not entered here. He rejoined his companions in the Merchant’s Quarter. Their quarry had indeed been there, drinking, brawling and causing a nuisance of himself. He had headed a few days ago to the great port of Hlanith, via elephant caravan through the Jungle of Kled. Landen managed to trade his PDA (which wasn’t working anyway) for passage aboard a ship to Hlanith, which would be much faster than a caravan. He even persuaded the ship captain to leave immediately.
Hlanith was a bustling port city famed for trade but little else among dreamers. Asking after the Boatman, the three were directed to the Yellow Minotaur Inn, which they found on the waterfront closed for repairs. The proprietor was within, but the place was a mess. The Boatman had stayed there, run up a huge bill, drunk excessively and started a fight which had caused the damage. In exchange for some help cleaning up the place the innkeep told them that the Boatman took a ship for Celephais only a couple of days ago. He even mentioned the name of a captain who might likewise take them to that timeless city. Yucta quickly sought out and found a few able bodied men that he hired to assist in the clean up of the inn and ensuring a timely departure.