Mad Moon Rising
"In the waking world," said David Hero that weird night (Hero of Dreams, as he was sometimes known) to his friend and constant companion Eldin the Wanderer, "--if indeed the waking world truly exists--"
"Oh, it does, it does," Eldin rumblingly cut in. "I lived there once, and so did you; but I can't remember much about it, and you seem to remember even less."
"Well, then," Hero continued, a little miffed at being interrupted, "since your memory is so superior to mine, perhaps you'll recall the waking world's moon?"
"I mean, did it really have a moon?" Hero fumbled the question out, frustration plain in his tone as he struggled to plumb the murky deeps of memory. "Was there such a thing as a moon--in the waking world, I mean?"
They sat with their backs to the trunk of a massive cedar on the banks of the Skai, embers of a small fire glowing at their feet and sputtering acridly on the bones of a pair of trout tickled to death by Eldin's practiced fingers some hours earlier in the perfumed twilight. Hero's question, for all that it may have sounded trivial, naive and hardly typical of his usual patter (though certainly he was a romantic in his own way), was pertinent indeed in this particular place and on this particular night. Why, the pair had walked down the riverbank fromUlthar just to be out in the open night air for the moon's rising; which must say something for its pertinence! That two such as these should be out here to witness a moonrise when they could easily be boozing or wenching or both ... ?
"Was there a moon?" Eldin musingly repeated, frowning up into cloudless indigo heavens aglow with all the stars of night. "Why, of course there was! I remember it well, because ..."
Eldin stirred himself reluctantly and shrugged. "Because it rhymes with June and spoon," he answered, however vaguely.
"Spoon?" Hero too sat up straighter. "Are you pulling my leg, old lad?"
"Of course not," the other sighed. "It's just that I remember how the moon featured in almost every love song. Moon over this or that--moonlight bay--silvery moon and blue moon--and so on." He shrugged again, somewhat self-consciously. "All very mushy, I know, but that's how I remember it."
After a little while Hero said: "Perhaps I do remember it. Blue moon and silvery moon, yes. But how about bloated moon!"
"What?" Eldin cried, aghast. "In a love song?"
"No, I suppose not," Hero was forced to agree; and his eyes suddenly narrowed as they stared across the star-strewn river. "After all, how in all the dreamlands could anyone write a love song around a monster like that, eh?" And he pointed toward a spine of distant mountains where even now a scabby, silvery-yellow rim floated up into view.
Spectral light flooded the valley of the Skai, paling the scattered lights of lanthorns in the towers of near-distant Ulthar and driving some of the lesser stars from the heavens. The moon rose higher, like the pitted pate of some luminous monster peering over the edge of the world, with shadowed craters for eyes. The dreamers climbed to their feet and absently dusted themselves down, then stood silently, in a sortof lunar awe, gleamingly illumined by the vastness rising up into the night sky of dreamland.
"Why, the damn thing's bigger than ever!" said Eldin, and Hero detected a shuddering note in the unusually hushed voice of his companion. "No," the Wanderer continued, steady once more. "No, I certainly wouldn't consider writing that moon into a love song! What do you make of it, lad? A moon that grows bigger and bigger each night--like a huge balloon, bloated beyond belief. Almost as if--"
"As if it were about to pop and fall in tatters!" Hero muttered, giving substance to Eldin's unspoken thought.
At that very moment, invoked it seemed by Hero's words, something did fall: a fluttering something that stilled the voices of the river frogs with its clapping and thrumming as it dropped to Hero's shoulder and clung there, rubbing its downy head against his cheek. Momentarily frozen in shock, he quickly recovered and put up a still trembling hand to carefully catch the bird about its slender body, drawing it down unprotestingly.
"A pink pigeon!" cried Eldin.
"A bird from the Temple of the Elder Ones in Ulthar," added Hero in a quieter tone, frowning as he took from the aerial messenger's leg a tiny cylinder, unscrewing its end and drawing out a tight wad of extremely thin paper. Eldin took a brand from the fire, holding it up to the paper which Hero now spread against the cedar's rough trunk. Written in the clean, clear glyphs of dream, they could read a message. It said simply this:
Come at once to Ilek-Vad. Waste no time--there is none to waste. The dreamlands are threatened, and in your hands the power to save us all. A sky-floating ship awaits you in Ulthar, to bring you to Ilek-Vad. If you want a sign, only look at the moon!
All speed-- Randolph Carter."
As if satisfied with a job well done, the pigeon now flapped aloft and drew the eyes of the adventurers skyward. Moonlight streamed across the land, but not the healthy moonlight that Hero and Eldin were used to. No, it was a diseased, creeping moonlight, undulating down from a bulging monster moon which already filled slightly less than a third of the entire horizon. Sickly that moon, its evil power oppressive--and not alone over human beings. From far away came the baying howl of a wolf, a sound seldom heard in the dreamlands and a powerful omen, which was answered by a vicious and concerted feline spitting and yowling along the riverbank.
"The cats of Ulthar are restless tonight," said Hero, his own voice ashiver.
"Little wonder," answered Eldin, and added a low curse as the guttering firebrand burned his fingers. "This moonlight clings like a film of yellow sweat! What does it all mean, d'you think? What trouble brews?"
Hero shook his head. "At this rate we'll never know," he said. "But there's a quest in it for sure, on that you can bet. And the note said to hasten."
"Then let's hasten," grunted Eldin. "We've been idle for too long, lad, since our last adventure. We could use a little exercise."
"Oh?" answered Hero as he stepped out beside his friend along the river path. "A little exercise, you say? Well, if it's exercise you're after, I can feel it in my water that we're in for a lot!" And with that the pair grew silent as their pace quickened and their ill-lit strides stretched out ...
Beneath that glowering, diseased moon, along the river to Ulthar, the shadows of the pair were long and inky when they emerged from the trees and strode the pebble path. Now, in that sickly moonlight, the men took on solid shapes and became more than the gray ghosts they had been beneath the cover of the cedars. And had there been an observer--a man or woman born of these lands of Earth's dreams, say--thencertainly he or she would have recognized in these two a certain ... outsideness?
Outsiders, yes, for they did come from outside--from the waking world. There David Hero had been an artist of the weird and fantastic, and Eldin had been an erudite if somewhat eccentric professor specializing in psychology and anthropology. And both of them had been dreamers. Now late of the waking world ("waking-worlders," in the terminology of all true dreamlanders, those races indigenous to dreams which Eldin had dubbed Homo ephemerans), they had become questers--sellswords, thieves, adventurers for gain, rogues, call them what you will--in the land of Earth's dreams.
And dreams had been kind to them. Oh, they had not had an easy time of it, on the contrary, but so far they had come through all of their many adventures with flying colors. And in the process they had gained something of reputations. Some good ... some not so good.
Hero was tall, rangily muscled, blond as his waking self had been, good humored--generally--and slow to anger. Blue of eye and fast on his feet he was, bursting with easy laughter and yet, in a tight corner, wizard-master of his curved blade of jungled Kled; the dreamlands were fortunate that Hero was a force for good--generally. He loved a good fight, yes, but he loved songs and poems too. And girls quite a lot.
Eldin, on the other hand, was very different. He was older by a good fifteen years than his companion (though he didn't much like admitting it) and clad in night black as compared with the other's bark-brown; but the lands of dream have often known stranger companions. Perhaps it was their differences which made them so mutually attractive. Scarfaced, black-browed and a little apish in his movements--but exceedingly quick-minded for all that, and quick to anger on occasion, too--Eldin did have several things in common with the younger man. He shared the same wanderlust, for one, and the same sometimes acid sense of humor for another.
No room for humor tonight, however, not in David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer. Neither in them nor in all Ulthar; not with that giant moon of ill-omen hanging huge and heavy in the sky over the Skai. The cats of Ulthar, for which that venerable city was famous, were especially out of sorts, as witness their rooftop yowlings and increasingly malicious (if strangely sexless) caterwaulings; which carried clearly on the tingly air to the two where they left the river to come through the steep and winding streets of Ulthar's suburbs toward the city's tallest hill.
Crowning that hill, the vast and circular stone tower of the Temple of the Elder Ones stood ivied and ancient, and tonight its windows were aglow with numerous lanthorns; a singular circumstance in itself, in that half-fabulous and centuried fane of peace, quiet and changeless charm. Indeed, Ulthar would normally share these restful qualities with the great stone tower, but very little seemed normal in the dreamlands these days. For as the moon had waxed so it had become swollen and angry, and when it should have waned it had not done so but continued to bloat in dreamland's night skies, and for a fortnight now an unspoken madness had taken root in Ulthar as in all of dreamland's saner places. There was an unaccustomed bustle to the city's inhabitants and a half-hysterical babble to their voices.
So that even now, when by rights Ulthar should be sleeping, small parties of people hurried to and fro in the crooked streets, with numerous lanthorns bobbing in the darker districts, where even the whispers of lovers in garden bowers were hoarse and nervously shrill. And all of this silvered (or rather yellowed) by that sick lunar glare, whose touch was physical and left one feeling damp and filled with nausea; and the muted question on lips grown grotesquely pallid, seeming to echo to the adventurers from all quarters: "What is it? What is happening? What is wrong with the moon?"
... So Hero and Eldin climbed steeply in a street leading to the Temple of the Elder Ones, and as they turned a cornerthe tower came back into view and they saw the many lights that moved within. Above the tower and moored to its topmost turret, rocking slowly and majestically in the night breeze, the familiar shape of a ship of the sky was likewise illumined with moving lights; and even as they watched, spidery figures went up and down the rope ladders which fell from ship's side to ivied aerie.
"Surely that's Gnorri II!" cried Eldin, his bearded face inclined toward the aerial man-o'-war. "It's Limnar's ship."
"Aye," Hero answered, "I believe you're right. And a welcome sight, too!" He took the other's arm in steely grip and quickened his pace to a trot. "Come on, let's find out what Captain (or is it Admiral?) Limnar Dass can tell us about all this. Since he's been sent to fetch us, he must know something."
And in another minute they were entering in through the temple's oaken doors ...