PEOPLE OF THE DRAGON
by Lin Carter
– Out of the North –
My name is Junga. I am the youngest of the three sons of Gomar, the mighty hunter; and my people are the People of the Dragon. Or so, at least, we call ourselves, after that red, bearded star that burns like a signal torch down the southern skies, ever leading us onwards, who ever follow. In the time of my grandfather, Zorm the Wise, it first shone in the wintry skies above our lost homeland which now lies buried deep beneath the eternal snows. It was in the time of the White Winter that it first appeared and blazed in those forgotten skies, calling my fathers forth from the valley wherein my people had dwelt from Time's forgotten dawn.
The snows had fallen thick and yet lay deeply piled, and still unmelted, from the winter before. The herds our hunters sought for meat were thinned by the unending winter, and the foliage whereon the beasts fed were scrawny and frost-bitten. The people of my tribe went hungry then, and the cold winds blew ever at the mouths of the caves, and the old folk died of the coughing sickness, one by one, and many the newborn babe was exposed to the elements on the hill-slopes because there was not enough meat for the strong and living, much less the newly-born.
Those were harsh times; cruel times; for oft have I heard my grandsire tell of them, he that lives yet but is lean and hardy for all his length of years. Men starved and women wept, or sat dry-eyed and stony-hearted, crooning to the dead babes they clasped against their shrunken breasts. Children fought, naked and snarling, like starving curs over scraps of meat. Ever the snows fell, blocking the ways between the mountains. Ever the winds blew cold as a whetted knife, freezing the blood in our veins, chilling the very marrow in our bones. And then the wolves came down from the windy heights, to slink among the caves—and never in the memory of a living man (my grandsire, Zorm, would say) had this occurred before.
Grim and terrible were the battles my fathers fought, knee-deep in the numb, red-splattered snow, defending the women and the children, the old and the sick, against the ravening wolves, who grew ever bolder, maddened by starvation, until they strove to enter the very caves of my people, to rend and tear hot flesh from the living.
And then one night when a howling gale had torn the snow-heavy clouds away to bare the merciless stars, the Red Star blazed above, that no man's eye had looked upon in all the generations of men. Burning bright it was, like scarlet fire, with a long writhing streamer of flame behind it, for all the world like a dragon's serpent-length and serpent-tail. And it was Zorm, my grandsire, who heard it hissing to him in his troubled dreams: Arise! the Dragon Star whispered, Take thy people, and go forth into the south, for the Great Ice cometh down upon the valley of thy fathers, that shall never lift for an thousand years of time. Go forth, I bid thee, south and ever south, and I shall fly ever down the skies before thee, and I shall bring thee at last to a warm and golden land of eternal summer that fronts upon a blue and smiling sea... a sweet and verdant country, like a garden, where the ripe fruit droppeth from the heavy-laden branch, and none need ever suffer from the gnawings of hunger, nor the pangs of thirst, nor shiver to the chilly kiss of the wintry wind.
Whether it was but a dream or a true vision sent from the Gods of the North, Zorm my grandsire spake thus to the people, and they rose up and took their furs and skins, their stony axes and flint-bladed spears, and all that they possessed, and departed from the place of their fathers, and wended their long way south and ever south, down from the mountains of the wintry north, following the visions of Zorm the Wise, and the Red Star that flew down the skies before them, leading them on like a streaming torch borne in the invisible hands of a friendly god. My father, Gomar, was but a boy in the day of the rising-up and the going-forth of my people, the People of the Dragon; and I, his son, was born on the great march and have never seen the lost land of my fathers. Nor shall I ever, while the world lasts.
– The Plains of Thune –
But I would speak of what befell me in my fourteenth year, when the People had come down at last out of the great mountains, and were crossing the measureless plains we called the Land of Thune for that there were flat and level as the Stone Table in the old myth, wherein Thune, the sun lord, was slain by the Demon of Winter, only to rise again, reborn with spring.
The People had waxed in number since the time of our going-forth: then we had been but three-and-twenty, and Thorn the Strong, firstborn of the sons of Zorm, had been our chief. Now were we near fifty in number, and Thom-Ra, the brother of Thorn, led us on the march. Gray of mane and beard was Thom-Ra, with tall sons went ever at his right hand, but still a mighty warrior for all that he was in his prime. At his left hand went mine own father, Gomar, for they were brothers, albeit my sire was the youngest of the sons of Zorm, who lived yet, and was now known as Zorm the Wise.
The thick furs of cave-bear and snow-wolf we had put by, once we were come down from the mountains with their ice-choked passes and their wintry winds. It was Tuma the Limping, the clever, the Lame One, had bethought him of scraping the fur from the hides so that we went clothed now but in the hides of beasts. For the Plains of Thune were milder and not so cold as had been the windswept and snowy heights. And the warriors and the hunters wore still the necklace of fangs that were the mark of manhood to the men of my tribe, and had ever been.
I, a mere youth, was not yet attained to an age whereat I might strive for the mark of manhood, but my brothers, Jord and Karth, wore about their strong throats the coveted necklace of the fangs of the great cave bear. Youth though I was, I had the strong thews of my father, gliding over the heavy bones of our kind, and the clear tanned hide and raw yellow hair and cold blue eyes of my blood from time immemorial. We were mighty then, tireless in the hunt, and powerful in war.
But the level plains of long sere grass, they were strange and new to us and we knew not the ways thereof. At the time whereof I speak, we had marched south for seven days and had found no game and little water, and hunger gnawed at us and made tempers short and men take risks they might otherwise have been too wary to attempt. For we knew nothing of this land nor of the dangers peculiar to it, as I shall shortly show.
When the last of the dried meat was gone, and the water low in the leather bottles, our huntsmen ranged far and ever farther afield, searching for game. What beasts might dwell here amidst the endless plains we could not guess, but beasts somewhere there must surely be, for else the Dragon Star and the visions of Zorm would not have led us thither.
By night we lay huddled together for warmth, body close to body, trying to ignore the emptiness of our bellies and the dryness in our mouths. None complained and none whimpered, for we were a hardy people; only the babes cried a little against their mothers' breasts. Fire we had brought with us at the beginning of the great march south, fire from the Undying Flame that the women tended ever and that was never allowed to die out. It had been Zar, the great-great-grandsire of Zorm—Zar, the first chief of our tribe—who had first learned the secret of making fire. For that reason was the sacred fire of the tribes watched over and guarded thereafter down through the generations, called the Flame of Zar. But his secret, which had to do with the striking together of certain rocks, had perished with him under the trampling feet of the hairy mammoth. And, within my own time, the flame we had brought with us in a bowl of hollowed stone, had been drowned in a sudden rainstorm. No longer did any, even Zorm the Wise, who was the descendant of Zar in the fourth generation, remember the secret of fire. Therefore did we huddle for warmth together under the thick grasses amidst the windy plains, naked and shivering in our hides. And more than a few of the people had cause of nights to grumble against the cleverness of Tuma the Limping–for that, at his behest, we had scraped the thick, warm fur from the hides we wore.
Foremost of the hunters of the tribe was my mighty father, Gomar. He and my brothers had gone forth at dawn earlier to seek for game. But with the setting of the sun they had not returned, though all else, including mine uncle, Thom-Ra the chief, had come back from the hunt, and empty-handed.
– The Vision of Zorm –
For worry after my father and my brothers, I, Junga, could not sleep that night. And neither did my grandsire, Zorm, find easeful slumber. The sleep of the aged is thin as the blood in their veins, I knew, but as my grandsire lay curled against me, his bony frame gaunt in my arms, which I wrapped about him so that he might take warmth from my young flesh and hot blood, I felt him tremble betimes and betimes cry out.
Towards the mid of night, he spake suddenly in a voice clear and strong, and I startled from my half-doze at his cry.
"Gomar, my son! Venture not into the marshy places! Turn back therefrom, and thy sons with thee! Beware the Oozy Thing—the ghastly stench of it, and the bottomless hunger! Turn thy steps away from the deep places, or the Father of Slime will drink thy strong blood and suck the flesh from thy bones—Aiiee!"
With this last, he shrieked and woke trembling and staring about into the dark with eyes filled with fear. But when I asked of him the meaning of his words, it was as if they had been spake by another, for he remembered them not. He knew only that a black and doom-fraught dream had seized upon him as he drowsed. When I told him the words he had uttered in the dream, he grew agitated and distraught. Mayhap it had been a vision of warning, sent him by the Gods of the North, who ever and anon spake to him in his slumbers. The thought that my father and my brothers were in danger roused me and I rose from my bed and took up my flint spear and stone knife and the great axe that was used only in war. Nor did my grandsire seek to stay me.
"East-away, child, in a marshy place, the danger lurks," he quavered, pointing with one frail arm. "Nor know I how the knowledge cometh to me—but fly like the very wind, young Junga, if ever thou wouldst see thy kin alive!"
I passed through the huddled sleepers to where Thom-Ra, the chief, lay amidst his sons and his women. At my approach the younger of the sons of Thom-Ra roused. Taller than I, and older by two years, and mightier of thew than I, was Charn, the chiefs son. But ever was I fleeter of foot than he, and keener of eye, wherefore he admired me for those things wherein I was more skillful than he, as I admired him for those skills of his, and we had ever been friends.
"Whither at this dark hour, Junga?" he asked me, and I told him of the vision of Zorm and of my fears. He tugged at the few tufts of yellow hair that, as yet, sparsely adorned his chin.
"Ever from our fathers' time have the things seen in his dreams by Zorm the Wise proven true and sent by the Gods," he mused. "If peril lurks amidst the plains, we must know of it. And my uncle and thy father are the boldest of all our huntsmen, and must not perish. Come, I will go with thee." And Charn took up his weapons and came to my side.
"Whatever danger the Plains of Thune conceal, we shall face it together, Junga, thou and I!" he said stoutly; and my heart warmed to him then and there; and for all the rest of our lives did we cleave together, Charn and I, as we had been brothers born out of the same womb.
We left the camp and struck due east, in the direction from which the sun would rise. Nor did we loiter on the way, but like the wind we ran; nor did I ease my pace so that he could keep abreast of me, but flew on ever before him while he strove manfully to attain my speed.
Black was the sky in that doomful hour, and thick with clouds, and thunder growled like a surly beast upon the heights. Ever and anon, lightning flashed amidst the high-piled clouds, and we knew a storm was brewing. All the more reason, then, to speed my pace, before the winds grew and the rains came down to obliterate my father's spoor upon the long grasses.
In the days of my youth I could run all day, swift as a bird, tireless as the invisible wind. We were mighty men in the days of my youth, iron of arm, and with an unyielding and an untiring strength like the stone of the mountains that had cradled the birthplace of my race. Such men dwell not upon the earth now, as strode the wide ways of the world when Charn and I were in the fullness of our youth.
Fleet though we were, we were too late.
– The Horror in the Pit –
Ere ever we had found the marshy place, the storm broke above us. Wind tore with shrieking voice through our yellow hair, which not yet was woven into the long braid of manliness, and tugged at the strip of hide we wore about our naked loins. Cold rain lashed our backs and shoulders like icy whips and blinded us so that we stumbled and could not see our footing. But the flames of heaven blazed on the hearths of the Gods, and by its intermittent flaring we saw boggy ground ahead, and low hummocks of scabrous grass, and black pools in betwixt, and recognized this as the place dreamt of in the vision of Zorm.
Here we went slowly and on cautious feet, Charn and I, not knowing what peril might lurk herein. We avoided the black pools and inky rivulets, leaping from hummock to hummock, ever wary and holding our weapons at the ready. And I called aloud my father's name and the names of my tall brothers, in my clear young voice. But no answering call came out of the pouring dark.
We came at last to the brink of a great shallow pit, like the bed of a vanished lake. But it was empty of water, that lake, though a slick coating of black mud, or something very like unto mud, lay along the bottom of the depression. I peered over the brink and gazed therein... and my heart froze within my breast at what I saw pitifully tumbled about upon the floor of the pit.
They were the bones of men, three men, and one larger of size and older than the other twain: and still clasped about the bones of its neck was the triple-stranded necklace of bear's fangs that oft I had seen hung about the throat of my father, that mighty hunter. Now he would hunt no more, would Gomar, nor would his tall sons go ever at his side...
At my shoulder, Charn the chiefs son sucked in the breath between his teeth. The whites of his eyes shone wide with terror in the flicker of the storm-fires.
"The bones are stripped bare!" he whispered. "Not a morsel of flesh remains upon them! What manner of beast could have done this to strong men, well armed and brave? It was no beast did this grisly thing, but a night-devil!"
For a moment I did not reply, for the tears I would not permit to flow from my eyes choked my throat. Then I growled in a low tone that, beast or devil, I would slay the thing had done this, or be slain by it. Mayhap the Gods heard my vow, for thunder crashed and lightning struck to fire a dead tree that stood not far off amidst the marshes, and it burned like a torch held in a giant's hand.
"Vengeance I will pursue later," I said. "First I must care for my dead." And this we did, side by side, after the few and simple rites of our tribe. The raw and naked bones of my brethren and my sire we fetched up out of that black and slimy pit, piled them on a pyre made of dry grasses, and touched the pyre to flame with a bough torn from the burning tree. They flared up like dry twigs in a conflagration, the bones of my father and his sons, and that was a strange thing to see, for new bones burn poorly. Perchance it was the black slime wherewith they were bedrabbled that made them flare like dry tinder.
The smoke of the funeral pyre rose to heaven, bearing with it the ghosts of my father and my brothers on their long journey to the second life. They would join the ghosts of their ancestors in the country beyond the clouds, and dwell in bliss forever, purged of all crimes done in this life by their passage through the purifying flames. I made my farewells in silence, and Charn, my friend, stood at my side, his hand upon my shoulder. Above us, the storm died away and the stars stared down, coldly curious. Then I took up my weapons and prepared for the hunt.
"We part here, my friend," I said. "Bear word back to Zorm of how his son and his grandsons perished; say to him also that the last of his blood goes forth to seek vengeance or to die."
"If Zorm shall hear the tale of it, it shall be from your own lips, Junga, my brother," said Charn quietly. "For I shall go with you to face what cometh."
"This is not your fight, but mine," I said.
"I have made it mine," he spake. And then tears that I had held back rose to blur my vision and for some little time I could not speak, but only clasped his shoulder blindly, with a pressure that said what I could not.
And we went forward together, bearing a burning branch to light the way before us while we tracked the beast to its lair.
– Father of Slime –
In truth it was not hard to follow, that trail. For when the beast had heaved itself up out of the pit the black ooze had clung to it, or so it seemed, so that it left a track of bedrabbled slime whereby we tracked it swiftly. Strange they were, those tracks. I, who have hunted the white tiger of the heights and cave-bear and the ghost-gray wolves of the snow country have never seen a trail more oddly marked.
Charn saw the strangeness of it, too. "It seems to squirm along upon its belly as if it had no legs," he grunted. "See, Junga, my brother, there are no marks of pads or claws or hoofs in this soft mud! Naught but the trail of wriggling slime... is it some monster worm we follow, do you think, or some great serpent?"
"It was no serpent sucked the bones of my father clean," I growled. But his words sent a thrill of uncanny horror through me like a sudden chill. We were little more than savages in those days, and had seen little of the mighty world, its wonders and its mysteries, and our heads were full of the tales of night demons and monsters, whereof the old women whisper round the cave fires on stormy nights. Thinking of these unwholesome things made the flesh creep upon my arms and my nape-hairs prickle and lift. But I went on, bearing ever in mind that whatever can kill a man is solid and real, and can itself be killed.
Or so I thought at the time.
We came upon it quite suddenly, not long thereafter.
We had come to the edge of another bowl-like depression in the marshy ground, but this one was full to the brim with black water, or with some other fluid black as ink and stinking like the breath from an open grave.
Charn wrinkled his nose at this stench. "Foul water must it be, to smell so bad as this," he murmured, bending curiously over the motionless surface of the black fluid.
I know not what it was made me put my hand out suddenly to stay him. But I caught his arm and thrust him back, and in so doing, saved him from a death more terrible than ever a man of our tribe has dreamed in his grisliest nightmare.
For the black fluid rippled—stirred—and rose in a slow, horrible wave that shaped itself into a ropy arm of glistening, quivering black jelly. And this black tentacle of living slime groped at the space where Charn had been a heartbeat before.
"Gods of my fathers!" he cried. "It is a thing of slime—slime that lives, and moves, and—kills!"
In truth, it was the father of all slime, a living mass of quivering obscenity, vast enough to mire and swallow down a woolly mammoth in his prime. We shrank before it, retreating to a grassy hummock, and the heaving mass slopped up and over the brink of the hollow and flowed towards us like a living wave.
I flung my spear directly into the mass, but it passed through the stinking jelly without dealing it hurt nor harm. A tentacle shaped itself and whipped out towards me, but I hewed through it with my stone axe, and, severed clean, it fell to twitch and wriggle upon the lank grass like a great worm. But only for a moment did it hold its shape. In the next instant it had burst into a black puddle that trickled back to the parent mass, joined into it and was instantly absorbed.
We had thrown both our spears by now, and Charn had flung his axe into the heaving shape of slime, wherein it sunk without a trace. Save for my axe, and the flint knives twisted into the thongs that bound our strips of hide about our loins, we were defenseless.
So we retreated further, our knees trembling, our faces livid with terror. A droplet of the slime-stuff had touched my bare breast, where it clung, burning like liquid fire. I bent and caught up cold wet mud and smeared it on the burnt place with shaking hands. Now I knew what it was had stripped bare the bones of my father, for the stinking ooze of the slime-thing seared the flesh of men like some unholy acid.
Charn yowled and struck out suddenly with his stone dagger as a ropy extrusion of slime whipped out at him. The member withdrew, his blade still in it. And then a tentacle came slithering out at me and I struck with my axe, and howled like a singed cur as the slime stung my fingers.
"What black hell is this country the Dragon Star has led us into," cried Charn, "where even the slime can rise up against a man?" I had no answer to make.
"Save your breath," I said, "for running."
– Junga the Light-Bringer –
But we did not ran very far, after all. For swiftlier far than our feet the living wave of black ooze flowed over the ground, and before the white moon broke free from her tangle of clouds we had gained the top of a hummock and found ourselves ringed in. The slime-beast, like a living river, had flowed around the base of the hummock, to join and melt into itself in one circle of slithering death.
And now we were unarmed, for all we had to defend ourselves with was the stone knife at my waist.
"This is the end of it, my brother," I panted. "I told you to go back to the camp, but you would not listen."
"I regret nothing," he said stoutly (though naked terror was in his eyes). "No man should face a death like this alone, without a comrade at his side. Our ghosts shall wander forever, side by side..."
But not in the country beyond the clouds, I thought to myself as the slime came lapping up the slope to suck us down, for our spirits have not been purged of crime in the purifying flames of the pyre. The thought of the flaming funeral pyre reminded me of the burning branch I still bore in my hand and which, in my haste and in the extremity of my terror, I had not thought to cast away. Staring into the red flames I thought, for one mad moment, to turn the torch upon Charn and myself, that we might die a clean death by fire and that our ghosts, cleansed in that fire, might journey beyond the clouds to join our ancestors in the second life. But it was for a moment only that the madness clamored within my brain.
For Charn screamed, a raw-throated yell of unreasoning horror, as a black and glistening wave rose up before him and I sickened at the putrid breath of the thing that oozed up to engulf him and to suck him down in horror. And in that instant a single thought crashed through my fear-crazed mind.
For I remembered how the beslimmed bones of my father had flared up like tinder in the funeral pyre—!
Howling the war-cry of the People, I sprang forward and shoved Charn behind me with a powerful sweep of my arm.
And in the same moment I thrust the burning bough directly into the Father of Slime.
Then it was that we twain gazed into the naked heart of hell... for flames ran crazily over the heaving, glistening tide of putrid jelly... and the thing blazed up like an inferno!
In a heartbeat we were walled about with living flame. It writhed and wriggled like a maddened tangle of worms, sheathed in that web of burning flame. And as it burned, it died: and as it died, it—screamed!
Never, while the world lasts, do I wish to hear such a cry again! A high-pitched squeal—a piping sound, like a newborn babe, mewling and whimpering in fear as it dies, not understanding what is happening to it, not having felt the sting and bite of pain before... ah, Gods, that innocent, baby-cry goes whimpering through my darkest dreams to this very hour!
We leaped over the burning slime to the safe ground beyond, and stood, clutching each other, gaping like madmen upon the horror of its death-throes. By the time dawn paled the east, naught was left of the hideous thing but a rubbery, burnt scum and flames that smoldered amongst the scruffy grass. And I was numb with awe and with the wonder of it.
Perchance it was that in Times gray dawn some accident of nature had touched life within a droplet of slime within the depths of the steaming fens or oozy seas. And the slime fed upon wriggling life, absorbed that which it fed upon, and grew in bulk thereby. Grew vast and vaster still, over ages, till the lake or fen or marsh wherein it had been born was too small to contain it, so it had heaved itself ashore, to feed on beasts and men, growing ever greater and greater, until at length it had become the monstrous enormity that we had stumbled upon in our ignorance and folly.
World-old and world-evil, perhaps, was the Father of Slime... older by unthinkable ages than the race of men... mayhap it was even the first-begotten of all living things on this earth—and a naked savage with a burning branch had brought it to its doom! Irony of ironies, a thing older perchance than the very mountains of the north, and slain by a boy scarce fourteen.
* * *
Together, wearily, we trudged back across the plains, Charn my brother, and I. To where the People of the Dragon huddled together on the unknown plain, fearful of what the day might bring, strangers in a world of mysteries and terrors.
Like my ancestor, Zar, I bore in my left hand the gift of fire to them who had lost it in the black night of fear.
And in my heart I bore to them another gift, that was like light to the black night of ignorance. For I brought to my tribe the knowledge that nothing there is in all the world that can slay a man, that men cannot slay.
We went unto them, side by side, under the morning.
Publication Date: 07-23-2017
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