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Echoes of the Goddess: Tales of Terror and Wonder from the End of Time, page 1


Echoes of the Goddess: Tales of Terror and Wonder from the End of Time

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Echoes of the Goddess: Tales of Terror and Wonder from the End of Time

  Table of Contents



















  Conan’s World and Robert E. Howard

  Deadly Things: A Collection of Mysterious Tales

  Echoes of the Goddess: Tales of Terror and Wonder from the End of Time

  Exploring Fantasy Worlds

  The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews

  Ghosts of Past and Future: Selected Poetry

  The Robert E. Howard Reader

  Speaking of Horror II

  Speaking of the Fantastic III: Interviews with Science Fiction Writers


  Copyright © 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer

  Published by Wildside Press LLC


  To Steve Behrends, whose enthusiasm, support, and nagging contributed substantially to bringing about this book’s existence.


  “The Stones Would Weep” originally appeared in Fantasy Tales, Winter 1983. It has been revised for this book. Copyright © 1983 by Fantasy Tales. Copyright © 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “The Story of a Dadar” originally appeared in Amazing Stories, June 1982. Copyright © 1982 by Ultimate Publishing Co., Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “The Diminishing Man” originally appeared in Fantasy Book, September and December 1984. Copyright © 1984, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “A Lantern Maker of Ai Hanlo” originally appeared in Amazing Stories, July 1984. Copyright © 1984 by TSR, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “Holy Fire” originally appeared in Weirdbook #17. Copyright © 1983, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “The Stolen Heart” originally appeared in Weirdbook #26. It has been revised for this book. Copyright © 1991, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “Immortal Bells” originally appeared in Weirdbook #18. Copyright © 1983, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “Between Night and Morning” originally appeared in Weirdbook #20. Copyright © 1985, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “The Shaper of Animals” originally appeared in Amazing Stories, July 1987. Copyright © 1987 by TSR, Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “Three Brothers” originally appeared in Weirdbook #23/24. Copyright © 1988, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.

  “Coming of Age in the City of the Goddess” originally appeared in Fantasy Tales, June 1985. Copyright © 1985, 2013 by Darrell Schweitzer.


  The Goddess is dead. The Earth is very old. The fabric of time itself has worn thin. Who knows what might be glimpsed through it?

  —Opharastes, After Revelation

  At long last, she died. The Goddess of Earth, the Mother of Centuries, the dual mistress of dreams and nightmares, of the burning light and the impenetrable shadow, died.

  It was revealed. The prophets knew, but did not proclaim it. There was nothing left to prophesy, save that in some remote, unimaginable future, the godhead would be reborn yet again in a form too strange to be described, like a storm once more gathering strength out of dissipated winds.

  But for now, in the interregnum, would be an age of random portents and incoherent miracles.

  The priests knew, but kept silent. They heard the divine voice fading away like an echo in a vast cavern.

  About this time a certain soldier was mustered out of the army in Ai Hanlo, the capital of the Holy Empire. Wasting his money in taverns, drunk, exhausted from one last debauch, feeling desperation in his soul, he wandered across the plains, into the hills, without seeming direction or purpose, without any goal except to seek rest, to find peace. In his nightmares, all those he had slain in battle pursued him, screaming, their red wounds gaping. He cried out in fear and awoke in darkness, amid the spray of winter rain, but even while he was awake, the dead men proclaimed the news to him, saying, “Our deaths are as nothing. Behold. Look up.”

  And he looked up. The clouds parted, and he saw the Goddess falling across the sky, her hair trailing like a comet. To such an unworthy man as he, this vision came, while around him the ghosts of his enemies dissolved like soft clay in the rain.

  The soldier abandoned his name, or perhaps forgot it, and lived namelessly until he felt himself worthy, and then assumed another name, Telechronos. Because he happened to dwell in the land of Hesh, he was called the Heshite, though even he no longer knew his exact origin. It was given to him to explain to mankind how, in the fullness of time, even the Goddess must perish, how the fragments of her divinity are scattered across the world like drifting ashes, some of them taking the forms we call the Bright Powers and the Dark, miraculous and dreadful yet not alive, like shadows that can speak.

  He explained, too, why young men dream dreams and old men see visions, but the dreams and visions are without any intelligence or meaning, directionless, even if they are still holy.

  For in the time of the death of the Goddess the worlds roll aimlessly in the dark spaces, without any hand to guide them. The Powers roam the earth and sky, working merely arbitrary wonders, leaving men to make what sense of them they may.

  Let the many voices of these times speak.

  Let the stories be written.

  In the time of the death of the Goddess—


  In the time of the death of the Goddess, there lived a boy named Ai Harad, who wanted to be a singer. He was the son of Thain, who had been a soldier, was himself the son of Scidhain, also a soldier, who had served in the Golden Legion of Ambrotae IV, the Guardian of the Bones of the Goddess. When the Goddess was yet living, the Harads had tilled the soil since time’s beginning.

  But change was in the air. All things were in upheaval in the time of the death of the Goddess. Signs and wonders multiplied. It was whispered that soon men would be free from caste, no longer subservient to lords, that the world would be remade. Therefore Ain Harad aspired to be a singer.

  Now when Thain saw his son grow to be slight and slender and not very tall, he knew that the boy would never bear arms. Therefore he put him to work in a field, minding a herd of goats. The days were long and lonely in that field. The goats only acknowledged Ain’s presence when he poked them with a stick, or stood up and shouted. Although beasts were said to have obtained the ability to speak in the aftermath of the Goddess’s passing, they never revealed the secret to him. He and they regarded one another with close-mouthed contempt and not a little boredom.

  To fill the hours, Ain would play upon a kind of lyre, which he had made out of a shell and some string, and sing songs of his own devising. This was his true calling, as anyone who had ever heard him could attest, save for the goats, who offered no opinion. When he sang, he forgot all that was around him, and seemed in a different world. It was as if some fleeting, beautiful spirit possessed him. Perhaps one did. Those were unsettled times.

  It was said that when
he fell into his trance and played, even the stones would weep at the sound. It was said that the trees bowed down and the streams stopped following, pausing to listen. Many things were said in those days.

  And it was also said, or at least observed, that when Ain was enraptured in his music and paid no attention to anything else, the goats would wander off in search of tastier pastures.

  One evening in his fifteenth year, he came to himself again after playing, and there was not an animal in sight. He rose, put the lyre into the goatskin bag he wore over his shoulder, took up his staff, and set out patiently to round up his charges. One by one he found them, until he drove the mass of them before him up and down the dry, brown hillsides of Randelcainé, but by then he was far from home, and by the position of the Wolf as it swung around the bright star that was its eye, he knew the hour was very late. The sun would rise soon. Therefore he resolved to wait, and return home in the morning.

  He brought the goats into a cave and set a fire at its mouth to keep the dread things of the night away. Then he took out his lyre again, and softly touched the strings, and sang a song about sailors drifting in an open boat on a wintry night. All are frozen to the oars, stiff, nearly dead as they sit. The darkness around them is impenetrable, the sea black, but flecked with foam-capped waves. The wind chills them to the very bone, until the sensations of land beneath one’s feet or the warm of a fire, seem impossible, half-forgotten dreams. But then a light appears, and brightens. It is a watchtower. The mariners take heart, the vessel leaps forward as if it had wings, and they reach the harbor and all are safe.

  The goats huddled quietly as he sang. They had heard other versions of this one before, about men lost in the desert, about mountaineers, or the folk of Randelcainé venturing into the forbidding forests of the far north.

  Ain looked out over the flat countryside to where the Endless River curved like a vast, gleaming serpent in the starlight. To the east, it passed through mountains beyond which he had never gone. To the west, it vanished in the horizon. Both the beginning and ending of the River were mysterious. He had once been told that it flowed in a circle, engirdling the world. He wondered about that dimly, but did not really care, save that someday he might make a song about it. He had a verse already:

  Oh Endless River, return your waters,

  return your waters, to where they sprang.

  Oh Endless River, return your waters.

  The Goddess made you, to bring us home.

  Then, after a pause, he was moved to make another, different song. He scarcely had words for it, but he sang, and the words came. He sang of a longing for something more beautiful than anything on Earth, something to transcend human conceptions of beauty, and he wanted to be raised to this new level, to be reassured, to understand.

  There was a tiny portion of his mind which was not involved in the song, which could analyze the wonder which had settled upon him; and this portion looked out through his eyes and beheld the landscape.

  A light, which was not a reflection of a star, appeared in the middle of the river, and began to drift to the nearer bank, a point of faint blue, with a hint of rosy pink, the color of the twilight that precedes the sunrise. Then it moved onto the shore, a little larger, yet no more distinct; definitely approaching him. As it climbed the hillside it brightened. All this while he sang, his fingers dancing over the strings. That detached, calculating part of his mind remarked, As if a fisherman had caught the sun on his hook and were reeling it in.

  More intense grew the light, and still Ain sang, unafraid. The moment of transition was imperceptible, but there was a distinct moment in which only a growing bubble of light drifted up the slope and another in which a procession of figures moved slowly and gracefully within an illuminated sphere.

  Still he sang.

  He had never seen such people before. There were knights in plumed helmets and golden armor, bearing lances with flowers on their tips instead of blades. An old man, robed in white, led the group, bearing in one hand an ivory staff from which auroras flickered. There were tall musicians too, not all of them human, some with lacy wings that they could beat in time, or with four arms, enabling them to play upon the tambang and the zootibar and other unearthly instruments. One had a face like an elephant, with lips extended a full arm’s length in front of the face, forming a trumpet. At last came she for whom all this was an entourage, beside whom all paled into drabness, a lady clad in a gown of woven light, the burning white of noontide, the pale blue of a summer sky, the crisp oranges, reds, and yellows of autumn, the glittering silver of winter ice. She rode a shapeless beast which rippled over the ground like a wave and flashed the brilliant, harsh blue of electric fire. When she came to a stop and dismounted, the creature vanished, and all the company fell silent, and knelt before her.

  They waited just beyond the mouth of the cave, silent as mist, armor and jewelry and brilliant gowns gleaming with light.

  Still Ain Harad played and sang. He should have been speechless with awe, terrified, but the music burst forth like the ocean out of the earth when the spear of the Goddess struck it, on the first day of her reign and her epoch. He had passed a threshold. There was no turning back. He drifted, like a leaf in a torrent, unable to understand what was happening to him or why, unable to care.

  Then the Queen—for obviously she was—bade her followers rise, and the musicians joined in the boy’s song, and she danced in the middle of the circle of her knights, who banged their lances on the ground in time to her steps.

  Now he had before him, concretely, the source of his inspiration, and in her honor, to praise her, he sang with greater voice, struggling to describe her in a song when mere words were not enough, and she leapt and whirled, and she rose to fill the sky, touching the ends of the world, clad in the auroras.

  Somehow, Ai gradually recovered some sense of himself. He became fully aware of what he was doing, and he truly saw what his singing had conjured up. And as he watched the lady in amazement and wonder, his concentration broke, and he missed a note.

  The dancer paused in midstep. The ghostly musicians were again silent. Still filled more with pride and awe that he had summoned such a one than with any fear, he asked, “Is the great lady pleased with my song?”

  At this the whole company turned toward him, as if noticing him for the first time. The Lady looked down on him. Their eyes met. He was sure that her expression was that of an adult reproving a child who has begun well, but gone on to make an utter fool of himself.

  She might have smiled. He could not tell. The movement was so slight that before the image could register in his brain, all of that company vanished into the night like sparks cast off from a burning log.

  * * * *

  In those days the Earth was disordered, and the Goddess newly dead, and things were changing, but this didn’t stop Ain’s father from screaming furiously at him when he arrived home in the middle of the afternoon, dazed, dreamy, stumbling, and missing at least half of the goats. Zadain, the boy’s elder brother and the very image of the soldier Thain in his youth, was equally wroth. The two of them seized switches and chased Ain around the yard in front of their farmhouse.

  “Fool!” cried Thain, striking.

  “Idiot!” added Zadain, striking.

  “Good for nothing!” (Thwack!)

  “Brainless cretin! The goats should be taking care of you!”

  All the boy could try to do was shield himself and evade the blows, not very successfully. When Patek, his mother, wife of Thain, came out from behind the barn where she had been feeding the chickens, the boy looked to her for sympathy but got none. “To think I wasted myself nursing such a dolt! Quick! Give me another switch!”

  It was a very bruised and miserable Ain Harad who spent long hours climbing through briars, limping across stony plateaus, scaling hillsides in search of the missing goats. He found them, one by one, but was sure the imps of evil had spent all that morning placing the creatures in the most inaccessible places. The
re was a pillar of stone in the middle of a plain. It was said to be part of a palace from some ancient time, before the age of the Goddess. It was smooth on all sides. Sure enough, there was a goat on top, gnawing on a weed that grew there.

  He was not allowed to sleep in the house that night. When he got home, his family wouldn’t feed him. They had barred the door. So he sat out under the stars, and tried to play a song. It was a simple one, something he had known for years. But for the first time he could remember, he could not play. It was terrifying. All the music was wrung out of him.

  Only after many hours of sleepless sorrow did anything come. It was as if breath had returned. He thought of the lady, of the song he had played for her. He could not remember it wholly, but he recalled brief parts of it, and the memory of the dancer was his inspiration.

  * * * *

  On the day before he was to leave for the wars, Zadain came upon his younger brother as he sat in the middle of a pasture with his face held between his fists. The boy was so caught up in his brooding that he did not notice the goats scattering at his brother’s approach. Nor did he mark Zadain’s dress: tall, leather boots, a blue tunic, a kilt set with metal strips, and a round helmet.

  Said the elder to the younger, “Brother, you’ve always been a bit distracted, and I’ve always said that maybe your head isn’t right. But I know that something special troubles you. I’m not sure I’ll be back, where I’m going, so I’d like to set everything right between us before I leave. So tell me what your trouble is.”

  When Ain saw that his brother was sincere, he unburdened himself of the whole story, but his trust was shattered when Zadain burst into laughter.

  “You’re haunted by some dancing hussy you met in the hills? Do you mean that, after all the years in the world, after the Goddess has lived and died, you’ve finally discovered sex?”

  “No! No! It isn’t like that at all!” The goats scattered as Ain shouted.

  “Oh, I see. You mean to say that some lofty, ethereal creature appeared out of heaven, which can never be seen by any of us insensitive, vulgar mortals. Except you, of course—”

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