Rediscover her classic, most popular fantasy series, Tales from the Flat Earth, where demons and gods grant wonders and wreak havoc. Visit the Upperearth, where dwell the gods; the Underearth, the realm of nightmarish demons; the Innerearth, domain of the dead; and the Flat Earth itself, the home of mortals.
Supreme amongst them all is the demon god Azhrarn, Night’s Master, whose deadly whims could change the lives of those in the Flat Earth. Azhrarn holds in his heart a mystery which could alter the very existence of the Flat Earth forever.
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A Mortal in Underearth
One night, Azhrarn Prince of Demons, one of the Lords of Darkness, took on him, for amusement, the shape of a great black eagle. East and west he flew, beating with his vast wings, north and south, to the four edges of the world, for in those days the earth was flat and floated on the ocean of chaos. He watched the lighted processions of men crawling by below with lamps as small as sparks, and the breakers of the sea bursting into white blossoms on the rocky shores. He crossed, with a contemptuous and ironic glance, over the high stone towers and pylons of cities, and perched for a moment on the sail of some imperial galley, where a king and queen sat feasting on honeycomb and quails while the rowers strained at the oars; and once he folded his inky wings on the roof of a temple and laughed aloud at men’s notions of the gods.
As he was returning to the world’s center an hour before the sun should rise, Azhrarn the Prince of Demons heard a woman’s voice weeping as lonely and as bitter as the winter wind. Filled with curiosity, he dropped to earth on a hillside as bare as a bone, beside the door of a wretched little hut. There he listened, and presently took on his man’s shape—for, being what he was, he could assume any form he wished—and went in.
A woman lay before the exhausted flames of her dying fire, and he could see at once that she, as was the habit of mortals, was dying too. But in her arms she held a new-born child, covered by a shawl.
“Why do you weep?” Azhrarn inquired in fascination as he leant at the door, marvelously handsome, with hair that shone like blue-black fire, and clothed in all the magnificence of night.
“I weep because my life has been so cruel, and because now I must die,” said the woman.
“If your life has been cruel, you should be glad to leave it, therefore dry your tears, which will, in any case, avail you nothing.”
The woman’s eyes grew dry indeed, and flashed with anger almost as vividly as the coal-black eyes of the stranger.
“You vileness! The gods curse you that you come mocking me in my last moments. All my days have been struggle and torment and pain, but I should perish without a word if it were not for this boy that I have brought into the world only a few hours since. What is to become of my child when I am dead?”
“That will die, too, no doubt,” said the Prince, “for which you should rejoice, seeing he will be spared all the agony you tell me of.”
At this the mother shut her eyes and her mouth and expired at once, as if she could no longer bear to linger in his company. But as she fell back, her hands left the shawl, and the shawl unfolded from the baby like the petals of a flower.
A pang of indescribable profundity shot through the Prince of Demons then, for the child was of an extraordinary and perfect beauty. His skin was white as alabaster, his fine hair the color of amber, his limbs and features formed as carefully and wonderfully as if some sculptor had made him. And as Azhrarn stood gazing at him, the child opened his eyes, and they were of darkest blue, like indigo. The Prince of Demons no longer hesitated. He stepped forward and took up the child and wrapped it in the folds of his black cloak.
“Be consoled, O daughter of misery and wailing,” said he. “You have done well by your son, after all.”
And he sped up into the sky in the shape of a storm cloud, the child still nestled to him like a star.
* * * * *
Azhrarn carried the child to that place at the earth’s center where mountains of fire stood up like thin ragged and enormous spears against a sky of perpetual thunder and dark. Over everything lay the crimson smoke of the mountains’ burning, for almost every crag held a craterous pit of flame. This was the entrance to the demons’ country, and a spot of awful beauty where men seldom if ever came. Yet, as Azhrarn sped over in his shape of cloud, he heard the child chuckle in his arms, unafraid. Presently the cloud was sucked into the mouth of one of the tallest mountains, where no flame burned but there was only a deeper darkness.
Down fled the shaft, through the mountain and beneath the Earth, and with it flew the Prince of Demons, Master of the Vazdru, the Eshva and the Drin.
First, there was a gate of agate which burst open at his coming and clanged shut behind him, and after the gate of agate, a gate of blue steel, and last a terrible gate all of black fire; however, every gate obeyed Azhrarn. Finally he reached Underearth and came striding into Druhim Vanashta, the city of the demons, and, taking out a silver pipe shaped like the thighbone of a hare, he blew on it, and at once a demon horse came galloping and Azhrarn leaped on its back and rode faster than any wind of the world to his palace. There he gave the child into the care of his Eshva handmaidens, and warned them that if any harm befell the boy their days in Underearth would be no longer pleasant for them.
And so it was in the city of demons, in Azhrarn’s palace, that the mortal child grew up, and from the earliest all the things that he knew and which, therefore, became to him familiar and natural, were the fantastic, brooding and sorcerous things of Druhim Vanashta.
All around was beauty, but beauty of a bizarre and amazing sort, though it was all the beauty the child saw.
The palace itself, black iron without, black marble within, was lit by the changeless light of the Underearth, a radiance as colorless and cool as earthly starlight, though many times more brilliant, and this light streamed into the halls of Azhrarn through huge casements of black sapphire or somber emerald or the darkest ruby. Outside lay a garden of many terraces where grew immense cedars with silver trunks and jet- black leaves, and flowers of colorless crystal. Here and there was a pool like a mirror in which swam bronze birds, while lovely fish with wings perched in the trees and sang, for the laws of nature were immensely different beneath the ground. At the center of Azhrarn’s garden a fountain played; it was composed not of water but of fire, a scarlet fire that gave neither light nor heat.
Beyond the palace walls lay the vast and marvelous city, its towers of opal and steel and brass and jade rising up into the glow of the never-altering sky. No sun ever rose in Druhim Vanashta. The city of demons was a city of darkness, a thing of the night.
So the child grew. He played about the marble halls and plucked the crystal flowers and slept in a bed of shadows. For company he had the curious phantom creatures of the Underearth, the bird-fish, and the fish-birds, also his demon nurses with their pale and dreamy faces, their misty hands and voices, their ebony hair in which serpents twined sleepily. Sometimes he would run to the fountain of cold red fire and stare at it, and then he would say to his nurses: “Tell me stories of other places.” For he was a demanding though an endearing child. Nevertheless, the Eshva women of Druhim Vanashta could only stir softly at this plea, and weave between their fingers pictures of the deeds of their own kind, for the world of men was to them like a burning dream, of no consequence except to make delightful enchantment in, and wickedness, which to them was not wickedness at all, merely the correct order of things.
One other being came and went in the life of the child, and he was not so easily accounted for as the fair nonsensical women with their tender snakes. This was the handsome, tall and slender man who would come in suddenly with a sweeping of his cloak like the wings of an eagle, and his blue-black hair and his magical eyes, who would stay only for a second, glance smiling down at him, and then be gone. No opportunity to ask this wonderful person for stories, though the child felt sure that he would know every story there might be, no space in fact to do more than mutely offer his look of worship and love, before the eagle-wing cloak had borne its wearer away.
The time of demons did not at all resemble human time. By comparison, a mortal life flashed by like the span of a dragonfly. Therefore while the Prince of Demons went about his own midnight business in the world of men and out of it, the child, glancing up, seemed to see the man in the inky cloak only once or twice a year, while Azhrarn had perhaps gone to the nursery, as it were, twice a day. Nevertheless, the child did not feel neglected. Worshipping, he claimed no right to ask for any favor—indeed, did not even think of such a thing. As for Azhrarn, the frequency of his visits indicated his great interest in the mortal boy, or, in any event, his great interest in what he had guessed the boy would become.
* * * * *
So the child grew up to be a youth of sixteen years.
The Vazdru, the aristocracy of Druhim Vanashta, sometimes watched him walking on the high terraces of their lord’s palace, and one might observe: “That mortal is indeed most beautiful; he shines like a star.” And some other would answer, “No, more like the moon.” And then some royal demoness would laugh softly and say, “More like another light of the earth sky, and our wondrous Prince had best he careful.”
Beautiful the young man was, just as Azhrarn had foreseen. Straight and slim as a sword, white of skin, and with his hair like shining red amber and his evening eyes, it is certain there were few so exceptional in Underearth, and fewer still in the world above.
One day, as he walked in the garden under the cedars, he heard the Eshva handmaidens sigh and bow from the waist like a grove of poplars in the breeze, which was their form of homage to their Prince. And turning eagerly, the young man beheld Azhrarn standing on the path. It seemed to the mortal that this special visitor had been absent far longer than before; perhaps some more than usually complex venture had kept him on earth, the twisting of some gentle mind or the downfall of some noble kingdom, so that possibly four or five years of the young man’s life had gone by without his seeing him. Now his dark glory burned there so tremendously that the mortal had an impulse to shield his eyes from it, as from a great light.
“Well,” said Azhrarn, Prince of Demons, “it appears I chose excellently that night on the hill.” And coming closer, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder and smiled at him. And that touch was like a spear thrust of pain and joy, and the smile like the oldest enchantment of time, so that the mortal could say nothing, only tremble. “Now you will listen to me,” said Azhrarn, “for this is the only harsh lesson I shall teach you. I am the ruler of this place, this city and this land, and also I am the master of many sorceries and a Lord of Darkness, so that the things of the night obey me, whether on earth or under it. Nevertheless, I will give you many gifts not generally bestowed on men. You shall be to me my son, my brother and my beloved. And I will love you; for such as I am, I do not give my love lightly, but once given it is sure. Only remember this, if ever you make an enemy of me, your life shall be as dust or sand in the wind. For what a demon loves and loses he will destroy, and my power is the mightiest you are ever likely to know.”
But the young man, staring into the eyes of Azhrarn, said: “If I should anger you, my lord, then all I would wish would be to die.”
Then Azhrarn leaned and kissed him.
The head of the mortal swam and he closed his eyes.
Azhrarn led him to a pavilion of silver, where the carpets were thick as fern, and scented like night-time woods, and dark shining draperies hung down like clouds across the moon.
In this strange place, part real, part mysterious, Azhrarn pondered the adult virgin beauty of his guest once more, caressing the ivory body, and combing with his fingers the amber hair he had cherished. The youth lay dumbfounded by ecstasy beneath the Demon’s touch. He seemed lapped by the heatless burning of the garden fountain of fire. He was an instrument designed expressly for one master musician. Now the master tuned his body and woke the nervous strings of his flesh to an exquisite and suspenseful agony. In the embrace of Azhrarn was nothing brutish or even merely urgent. Eternal time was on the side of his lovemaking, pleasures that thrilled and spilled over upon each other, measureless and prolonged. Melted and remolded in the limitless furnace, the youth became at last only one throbbing sounding-board for this mounting theme. Then a note of awful and marvelous dimension was sounded within him, filling the waiting vessel he had become to its brim. The phallus of the Demon, neither icy nor burning, entered him as a king enters a kingdom conquered, adoring, his by right of surrender. The phallus was a tower which pierced the gate, the vitals of the citadel of his inner world. The dark colors of the pavilion merged with the darkness of those imminent and unclosing eyes that watched him with a terrible, cruel, unsparing tenderness. The body of the mortal leaped and flamed and shattered in a million shudderings of unbelievable delight, the last chords of music, the cupola of the tower which smashed the roof of the brain’s sky. He sank back in delirium with the taste of night, Azhrarn’s mouth, upon his own.
Azhrarn gave the youth a name. It was Sivesh, which in the demon tongue meant the Fair, or perhaps the Blessed. He made Sivesh his companion and lavished on him many incredible gifts, as he had promised. He made him able to shoot with an arrow farther and more cleverly than any other, man or demon, and to fight with a sword as if he had had ten sword arms inside his one. Touching his forehead with a ring of jade he made him able to read and speak each of the seven languages of Underearth, and with a ring of pearl each of the seventy languages of men. And, with a spell more ancient than the world itself he made him proof against any weapon, steel or stone, wood or iron, snake venom, plant poison or fire. Only water he could not protect him from, for the seas were of another kingdom than the earth and had their own rulers. However, Azhrarn planned one day to take the youth to the cold blue lands of Upperearth, and trick the Guardians of the Sacred Well into giving Sivesh a draught of immortality.
Meanwhile, there was much for the young man to see and do, for now not only did he roam Druhim Vanashta with the Prince, and share in all its miraculous delights, but he rode beside him through the wild wastes of Underearth. Azhrarn had given him, along with all the other gifts, a demon horse to ride, a mare with a mane and tail like blue smoke and the remarkable quality that she could run over water. Azhrarn and Sivesh would gallop together across the lakes of the Underearth, beneath trees made of silver wire or bone, or go hunting with blood-red hounds on the shores of the great river of Sleep, where white flax grew like rushes. Azhrarn did not hunt deer or hare or even lion on those shores, for the little cruelties of man were as nothing compared to the huge cruelty of demon-kind. The Vazdru hunted the souls of men asleep, which ran shrieking before the hounds; though it was only the souls of the insane or those near death which the dogs were able to catch and rend, and even these always escaped in the end—it was merely a sport to the demons. And Sivesh, who had no memory of what he was, and knew no other laws than the laws of Darkness, hunted merrily and thoughtlessly with his lord.