It was evening and the uplands of dream were turning chilly. Spiked grasses nodded in a slight breeze, like hissing Gorgon heads, where they made silhouettes atop rocky rises. Soon the sun would be down and the stars would come out to blaze in the heavens of Earth's dreamland. David Hero did not know these parts, for his dreams had never before carried him here; he knew only that he did not like this place, where green plains gave way to scrub, stony slopes and sliding shale, and the crags cast gaunt shadows that would soon become threatening caves of blackness as night drew in.
He shivered a little and fondled the hilt of his curved sword where it hung at his hip, then turned up the hood of his brown cape a little--but not too much. He did not want to shut out the evening sounds of these uplands, for his ears were sensitive and would often tell him of a danger before the danger itself became visible. The breeze stiffened to a wind and moaned with an eerie insistence as he leaned forward up the slope, and high overhead a scud of gray clouds hurried into view as they crossed the peaks and headed south.
Now why couldn't he have dreamed himself south? To Celephais, perhaps, where King Kuranes reigned, or sky-floating Serannian where the west wind flows into the sky? But no, he was here, wherever here was, and so must accept whichever dreams were his due this night. Whichever dreams ... or nightmares.
David Hero knew he was in the north of Earth's dreamland, but no more than that. These peaks above him could well be the ultimate range leading to Leng itself, whose plateau was home to some of dreamland's vilest inhabitants; or they might merely be the foothills of that far mightier escarpment, Kadath in the Cold Waste. Thoughts such as these had almost determined the dreamer to turn back and head for healthier lands when, on cresting a ridge, he came upon a scene which had him drawing his sword in a whisper of steel and falling automatically into a defensive crouch.
Below, a lone wanderer sought cover in crevices of rock; while ranged about him, a trio of six-legged spider-hounds hissed and snapped at his leather-clad legs, trying to secure a hold on him and pull him down. One of them awkwardly clutched a straight sword in a prehensile forepaw, having doubtless snatched it from the frantically scrabbling, hoarsely panting object of their detestable torture.
David Hero knew some of the ways of spider-hounds from tales told to him by travelers and storytellers in dreamland's more civilized regions: how they would wear a man down with their vile hissing and leaping, then paralyze him with their poisonous stings and eat him alive, often making their meal last through several nights. Such was obviously the intention of this monstrous trio, and Hero could well understand the near-demented scrabbling of their victim as he sought to find some crevice in whichto wedge himself, the better to make a stand against the horrors.
Without a thought to his own safety, the newcomer gritted his teeth and went slithering and leaping in the gloom down the shale-covered slope. He waved his sword above his head as he ran at the hissing, scampering creatures, whistling and shouting like a madman. Still on the run, he snatched up a large lump of lava in his free hand and hurled it at the insect-like hounds, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them leap high in the air with the shock of the impact as the missile struck home.
Then he was upon them, slicing with his sword and panting through clenched teeth and grimacing lips. By good fortune his singing blade took the jointed hind legs right off one of them--the one that held aloft the beleaguered stranger's sword--and in another moment the man had leaped forward to snatch back his weapon from the crippled spider-hound. Striking together, the two men put paid to that demented creature where it dragged its stinger uselessly behind it.
But now the other spider-hounds had realized that the balance of the game had evened up, and that therefore a quick end must be made of it. As at a single word of command they launched themselves at Hero, twisting their bodies in the air so that their stingers struck at his face. He ducked, impaled one of them on his sword, felt the weight of the other on his back and a lancing agony as a single drop of mordant poison burned through his clothing to the skin ... then felt the horror kicked from him and heard its final hiss as the rescued man took both hands to his sword and hacked its cockroach head clean from its body.
Quickly, without a backward glance, Hero tugged his own weapon free of the scale-armored hound where it twitched and jerked among shale and lava fragments, then split its chitinous skull with a single stroke. The fight wasfinished, and only the moaning of the wind over the peaks remained: that and the panting of the men, and the nameless drip of the thin gray ichor which was the life-blood of these denizens of nightmare.
Now Hero turned to the other man, peering at him where he stood cleaning his weapon on his black jacket. The other looked back in turn, and gratitude shone in his eyes; but his breathing was ragged and he coughed painfully.
"They took you by surprise," Hero ventured.
"Eh?" the other finally grunted. "Yes, they did. Damned horrors! Didn't see 'em till they were on me. They don't hiss at all when they're tracking you--only when they have you cornered!"
"I wouldn't know," Hero answered. "This is the first time I've come across them--I'm happy to say!" He touched a severed head with his fur-booted foot and turned it until starlight fell onto the faceted eyes, then grimaced at the way the thing seemed to stare at him even in death.
Then, headless as it was, one of the carcasses began to twitch and the hard carapace rattled on the rocks. Both men stepped back from the dead things and shivered--and not alone from the chill of the night air. Finally they turned more fully to one another and clasped hands in the manner of dreamland.
"In the village where I sometimes lodge, I'm known as Eldin," the dark-jacketed man told Hero. "Since Eldin is the old word for 'wanderer,' it suits me well enough. Of course, I've another name in the waking world ... at least, I think I have. And how are you called?"
"My name's Hero, David Hero. I haven't earned myself a dream-name yet, though I'm pretty well-traveled in the better known places."
"No dream-name, eh, David?" Eldin grinned and nodded as if he knew something special. "Just a fellow travelerfrom the waking world, eh? Well, there seem to be damn few of us about these days. And what brings you here?"
"I could ask the same of you," Hero answered, casting nervously about. "And I would if I didn't think this a funny sort of spot to be spending our time in idle chatter. Is there no place we can make ourselves at ease for the night?"
"I was making for a cave back there in the shadows when these damned things set on me," Eldin said. "I've a flint in my pocket and the makings in my pack, and we should be able to pick up a few dry sticks for a fire. What would you say to a cup of tea?" Hero caught a flash of grinning teeth in the darkness.
"I'd say that was a very kind offer," he answered. "Lead on, Eldin, and we'll pick up some sticks as we go."
"Now then," said Eldin when they sat on flat stones in a dry and sheltered cave and sipped their tea out of tiny silver cups, "you were going to tell me what you're doing here, on these unbeaten paths so far away from dreamland's towns and cities."
Hero shrugged. "I go where dreams take me. This time they brought me here."
"You're not an inveterate dreamer, then?"
"Well I am, yes, but my dreaming never seems to have much point to it--if you know what I mean. It's like I said: I go wherever my dreams take me. I have no anchor here, as you seem to have. No village where I board, no place to call home. I never seem to be here long enough to build up any sort of permanency. Come to think of it, I believe I'm pretty much the same in the waking world. When I'm there I can't remember much of this place, and when I'm here ..."
"You can't remember much of the other place, eh?"
"Only my name," Hero answered, "and that's about all."
"I always make a point," the other said, "of going down the seven hundred steps to the Gate of Deeper Slumber. I've found that if you do that it makes it easier to stay here for longer periods. You don't wake up so easy. Those steps take you down to lower levels of dream, if you see what I mean."
"Not for me," Hero shook his head. "I've heard of people using those steps who never returned to the waking world at all. They're used by people who have to escape into dreams, and I don't have to. I suppose I'm not much of a dreamer, really--and I don't think I really care to be."
"Have it your own way," Eldin growled. "Anyway, we still seem to be two of a sort. The way I see it, we've got too much going for us in the waking world--or too little--and so we dream. You say you've no anchor here? I'll bet there's precious little to anchor you to the waking world, either. And then again I'm older than you. Perhaps dreams are kinder to me than the waking world. Anyhow, I like it here. Things seem easier, somehow." He coughed and held up a great hand to his mouth. "I'll take my chances in dreams. If they don't kill me, this damned old troublesome body of mine surely will!"
Hero shrugged. He looked at the other in the flickering firelight. Eldin was older than Hero's twenty-six years by at least a dozen, probably more, with a scarred, bearded, quite unhandsome face which yet sported surprisingly clear blue eyes. Stocky and heavy, yet somehow gangly, there was something almost apish about him; yet his every move and gesture hinted of exceptional intelligence and a rare strength. But Hero suspected that the man's strength was being sapped internally, that the flame of death brightened steadily in his lungs, threatening to blossom into araging inferno. Perhaps that was why he was here, this misfit from the waking world.
"And what of you?" he finally asked, seeking to confirm his reckoning. "What are you doing here, Eldin? I mean specifically, well, here, in the uplands?"
Eldin grinned and sipped his tea, peering at his new friend and admiring his strong arms, clean features and straight, slim figure. "Me? Why, I was looking for you!"
"For me?" Hero was taken aback.
"Let me explain," said Eldin. "In Bahama on the Isle of Oriab, there's a wharfside tavern where sailors gather from all the seas of dreamland. It's a funny little place, that tavern, and until recently none too healthy for outsiders--if you know what I mean. There's been a big clean-up, however, and many of dreamland's peoples have taken to traveling about a lot more. Even Dylath-Leen gets its quota of visitors these days, and I'm told that people are settling there again."
But Eldin's words had set Hero's mind wandering. He remembered stories he'd heard of the Bad Days, when the demon-god Cthulhu's minions in dreamland had attempted a coup over all the lands of dream, and only the intervention of two men from the waking world had stopped them. He remembered the names of those men: Titus Crow and Henri-Laurent de Marigny, and felt a certain awe when he thought of the battles they had fought against all the forces of nightmare.
"Anyway," Eldin's words brought him back to the present. "I was in Bahama across the Southern Sea, and it was there--in this tavern I've mentioned--that my future was told by a certain seer of no mean skill. Mind you, these old bellows of mine--" (he tapped upon his great chest) "--were playing me up and I was a little drunk at the time, and so I can't swear to the surety of my memory, but still I'll tell you what I think the prophet told me:
"He cast his stones, gazed at my palm with his strange, invisible eyes, and said--"
"Invisible eyes?" Hero felt obliged to cut him short. "What sort of eyes are those, for goodness' sake?"
The firelight flashed on Eldin's grin and sent shadows slithering over the cave's walls. "What kind? Why, invisible, of course! The kind when you look into them and see ... nothing! The spaces between the stars--an empty void--you know?"
"No," Hero shook his head.
"You can see their edges," Eldin patiently explained, "Their rims, like craters on both sides of the nose--but inside them ... nothing! I've met several such in dreamland."
Hero slowly nodded and said: "You were saying?"
"Eh? Oh, yes. Well, I'd had a few drinks, I admit it--yes, and I fancy the old seer had, too--and so he read my future in the stones and in the palm of my hand. And he said:
"'Eldin, you'll meet a man one evening in the northern uplands, and he'll save your life. Then ... he'll join you on a quest--on several quests--which will take you to the farthest corners of dreamland.'
"'Quests?' I said. 'What sort of quests?' But he'd say no more."
Fascinated, Hero asked: "Nothing else? That was all he told you?"
"I'm afraid so," Eldin nodded ruefully. Then he brightened and added, "Oh, yes! He did say that if we lived through these quests, how then that you'd have earned yourself a dream-name. That's how I know you're the one."
"Because I have no dream-name?"
"Well then, I reckon I'll have to get along without one."
"You won't come with me?" Eldin seemed disappointed.
"Hero by name," the other reminded him, "but not necessarily by inclination. And I don't much care for the way your seer foretold the future. 'If' we live through it, you say? There's one sure way to live through it, my friend, and that's not to go questing in the first place! Sorry, Eldin, but you can count me out. Anyway, it all seems rather vague to me. We're to go a-questing, you say? Where to? What for?"
Eldin shrugged. "I never did discover. But what does it matter, since you're not interested?"
Now Hero frowned. He turned his face away and gazed out of the cave's mouth into the night. "Let's sleep on it," he said, without looking at the other.
Eldin grinned. "I'll take first watch," he said.