Two Hearts in Zamora
Gainesville, Florida, 1975
Dark Meridian crept through the woods, moving in shadow, sword held low, stalking another in the dim. The other moved warily, sword also at the ready, peering into light-shot green depths. A rocky outcropping among the scrub and pine trees provided an opportunity by which stalked turned tables on stalker.
“Aiieee!” Annaria yelled as she leapt from among the rocks, slashing her sword down on Dark Meridian. Meridian’s sword flashed to meet the stroke and blades clashed, slid.
They held for a moment, snarling, then threw each other off.
“Daughter of worms,” spat Dark Meridian.
“Harridan,” growled Annaria.
Then fast and furious they engaged, swords clashing, attack and defend. They used all the exchanges of Italian-style sword fighting shown to them by a friend of Renny’s--Dark Meridian’s--stepfather, and a slew of others they made up as they went along, bruising and scraping knuckles, arms and bodies, up and down through the stretch of woods behind the apartment complex where Anna lived with her mother.
The woods were scraggle-limbed, an army of misfits. Beer bottles, candy, and fast food wrappers littered the undergrowth.
Anna, well grown for her thirteen years, lithe-limbed and strong, had heavy blonde hair down her back. Renny, smaller and darker, was just as strong, scarred from fighting at school and with her stepfather. They were bloody-minded girls.
The shadows and flecks of sun faded to general gloom. Rain began to spatter above, spitting now and again through the tree cover. In the sultry central Florida air, hot, sweaty, scratched and bruised, they welcomed the rain, only gathering their things--some food and a stack of comics and paperback books, chiefly bearing titles such as Savage Tales, The Savage Sword of Conan, Conan the Conqueror and the like--into a backpack. They wrapped their mismatched swords, Anna’s small, decorative version of an Italian long sword and Renny’s practice epee, in the cloaks they’d been wearing over jeans and t-shirts and headed for Anna’s apartment.
Near the edge of the woods, where they thinned off into a narrow gully, Renny caught Anna’s arm to stop her. Anna followed her gesture to see a man slipping along the edge of the woods, some distance from them.
“What the hell?” Anna hissed.
He was a bizarre figure of a man, walking like a movie zombie as he glanced back and around with furtive, stiff-limbed twitches. The thing’s face was a livid rictus, something that should be dead.
Down at the end of the gully, where the no-man’s land of woods gave into an unused old concrete-top lot, much broken and ragged with weeds, two Gainesville Police Department cruisers pulled up, silent, with red and blue lights flashing through the thin curtains of rain.
“Want to follow it?” Renny said.
Anna gave a shudder, but nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
They turned as one, fading back into the edge of the tree cover and heading in the direction taken by the strange man-thing. Soon enough they began to catch glimpses of him--it--again, shambling and furtive, but intent on its direction.
They could hear it snuffling, and the yellow glaze of its eyes in the once-dark but now mushroom-grey face as it peered about through the dripping gloom set their flesh crawling; but neither thought to turn back. They followed it down a small hillock to a rocky outcropping like their own usual base. Here it slipped among the rocks. Its head popped up from between them, looking about before it began to drag something out from the rocks. Crouching behind a screen of low scrub, the girls watched, shock freezing them breathless a moment.
The thing dragged out a body and it was someone they knew: Daly, who cleaned the pool at the apartment complex. The eighteen-year old, who they’d once agreed could be a Tiger Beat pinup, was always glad to smoke a joint with them, Renny shy, Anna flirting. He’d borrowed their books and comics occasionally. He thought they were cool, unlike kids at school, or Anna’s own mother, who derided her regularly.
Renny swallowed, clenching her fists. Her mother was too afraid of losing her bastard of a husband, Renny’s hated stepfather, to take up for her at all. Daly was about their only friend.
Anna’s eyes were wide, one hand over her mouth.
The pool boy’s limbs sprawled bare in the cut-offs and tank top he always wore, the puka shell necklace gleamed at his tan throat. There was blood at his temple and down one side of his face, but then they saw his chest rise and fall and knew he was still alive.
The creature snuffled, pawing in its own ragged clothes and bringing out several objects too small for the girls to make out. It set these things around the unconscious pool boy. Lastly, it took a long, curving dagger out and raised the blade up, mumbling thick, broken words in a language they didn’t recognize.
“We have to get the police,” Anna said.
“No time,” Renny answered.
“It’s going to kill him!”
“No,” Renny said, taking up a baseball-sized rock, “it’s not.” She heaved the rock at the man-creature with dead aim, hitting the thing square between shoulder blades so it lurched forward with a guttural cry, the knife flying from its grip. It fell over Daly and was still for the moment it took Renny, Anna at her heels, to scramble over and grab up the knife.
Then it began to rouse, coming to its feet with more snuffling and mumbling, as though the workings of throat and mouth were too fine an operation for it. It advanced on Renny while Anna bent over Daly, shaking his shoulder and calling his name.
Renny slashed at the shambling thing with the dagger. Close up it was a hideous travesty of the man she could see it had once been, broad and tall, dark-skinned with clean limbs and strength, now a badly-made monster. As it came too close, she cut it deeply across one forearm, leaping back a step the second after.
The creature neither bled nor stopped, but kept coming, its skin gaping in meaty flaps. This time she drove the dagger point-first into its left eye, the squishy resistance unexpected. She grit her teeth, stifling disgust and fear.
It staggered back. With a foot in its stomach, the girl shoved desperately while yanking the dagger back out.
One eye now ruined, it only came on again. The dagger blade didn’t have the heft or length to sever the thing’s head, which seemed the only way she might stop it. She ducked its reaching hands and it turned, coming after her. Slamming her fist and the dagger’s cross hilt into the thing’s face, Renny screeched when it caught her neck and one arm and slammed her with iron strength up against the rocks. Winded, she hung for a moment, pain radiating from her back and down through her arms, so that she almost dropped the blade, but she hung on doggedly. The dagger was in her free hand. Desperately, she began to stab it repeatedly at the side of the creature’s head and neck, until the grip at her neck began to weaken her hold on consciousness.
She glimpsed motion behind the thing. With a wild yell, Anna swung the backpack into its head, hard enough to dislodge its grip and send it reeling off to the side. Renny fell coughing to her knees. Anna kept after the creature, swinging the pack in great arcs, until with a guttural howl it lunged, grabbed the pack as she swung, and tugged.
The pack tore open and the contents flew into the air, the tumble of rocks Anna had hastily loaded it with, followed by books and comics.
The creature, head half bashed-in, brains showing mashed and gelatinous, began to mutter again. It pumped up and down on its legs, throwing its arms up.
A vortex of wind whipped the air, catching up the comics and books in its current, so they began to flap and circle above the gibbering thing and the unconscious Daly. Pages freed themselves from bindings in the force of it until, like a storm of feathers they circled, faster and faster. The objects the thing had placed around Daly had begun to glow. A reedy keening filled the air.
No wind touched the trees, but the pages and flapping remnants of the girls’ comics and books flew faster and faster as the glow grew brighter and brighter.
In the flurry of pages and light, the creature and Daly began to float upwards, fading from the air as they went. It took a breath and they were gone, the paper storm still swirling.
This time the girls didn’t need to exchange words. They only had to look at one another before, as one, they leapt into the whirl of paper as the last of the glow was leaking from the woods.
Confused impressions of images from the comics, the sharp etch of words on paper, whipped past them as the cyclone wind caught them up. A grubby feel of ink, the pulpy paper of the comic books, slid over their skin, as they floated up, turn and turn about.
“Anna!” Renny shouted and found her hand. With hands linked they floated up through a storm of words and images, black, white, and grey bleeding now into color. The floating gave way to a brief surge as if they were flying, and then air was replaced with water and they burst through the surface.
Coughing and blinking, the girls gaped at their surroundings.
They tread jade-green water green in a canal between towering walls built of shimmering, pale gold stone. A brooding dawn-streaked sky lowered above.
“Bloody hell,” Anna said. Renny nodded, trying to take it in. The water, lukewarm, smelled slightly sulfurous. As their eyes adjusted to the scale of the place, they saw a small, low-sided skiff tied at a stone ledge in the corner of one of the walls. Kicking off their sneakers, they swam toward this. Renny still gripped the curved dagger. They had nothing else but their clothes.
They pulled themselves up on the moss-slimed ledge. The skiff knocked stone in the gulp of water, a long pole and an oar rattling in it. It became still again quickly, the whole place silent and still, jade water between high walls. From here they could see that the walls belonged to massive square buildings with their foundations in the water. They rose to crowns of shimmering, opaline and pale gold ruins overhung with dark vegetation. Three more of the huge square buildings were in view from where they stood.
Beyond, grim black and somber red crags rose in one direction, with greyish, slope-shouldered mountains in the other. Wherever they were was high, nestled in among converging mountain ranges. Despite the presence of water, the air was cool and dry as old leaves, raising goosebumps on wet skin and leaving the girls shivering.
Barefoot and dripping, they examined the sheer stone of the edifice for a way in or up off the narrow landing dock. They found it, a passage faced by a block of stone almost invisible even from their close proximity--as the dock would have been but for the presence of the skiff.
Anna pushed wet blonde locks back, twisting them in a knot, and Renny gripped their sole weapon. They could just see wet streaks leading into the passage before darkness overtook it, marks of dragging in the disturbed dust.
“Do you think Daly is still alive?” Anna said.
“I don’t know. I mean,” she gestured around them. “Right now I feel like I don’t know anything.”
Anna nodded. “I want to think--I don’t know. But. This is really happening, isn’t it?”
Renny shivered. “Let’s find Daly.”
The passage was tall and narrow, the wan light of day left behind as they were quickly swallowed by dark.
As they went, Anna feeling the way along one wall, Renny gripped her friend’s belt loop with the hand not holding the blade.
Renny wanted to talk to Anna, and hear her voice, to ground and reassure. Wary of alerting the thing to their presence, though, and listening for its whereabouts, they walked without speaking. Only the echoes of their breathing broke the silence, their light-boned bare feet soundless on the passage floor.
The passage tended upwards, they could feel that as it switched back and forth several times, climbing like a zigzagging mountain road.
Anna stopped and Renny felt the shift of air, the sudden lack of stone wall close on their left that had stopped her. They stood at a crossroad of passages.
“Just pick a direction,” Renny whispered.
She felt Anna shrug and take a step, but then they heard a sound echoing from the right, a sliver of a word in a raised voice. Following that, they began to hear more, the same voice, resonant, bits of words they couldn’t make out, and then a horrible, wet cry, cut short.
Anna shuddered and Renny growled low in her throat, tensing, wanting to run, but restraining herself in the dark. They continued on in the direction of the voices.
The utter darkness was slowly leavened by a flickering, tawny light. The pale gold stone of the walls shimmered, intricately carved up to and across the ceiling, glimmers of bloodstone, opal, and azurite in the whorls and designs, inlayed also in torch sconces long empty.
Ahead, they could see a square framed entry through which the light flickered, wreathing shadow and glow over the carved and jeweled doorway and making it seem alive, studded with glittering eyes.
Approaching warily, they spied a side-passage to one side and took this. It led to a sort of anteroom, set off with a screen of latticed stone, fantastically carved with beasts and armored figures, between it and the flickering candlelight.
Through the lattice they saw a round chamber, high ceilinged, the gold stone washed in intricate designs of gems glittering wildly around a dreadful scene.
Anna moaned softly and Renny bit her lip to keep from crying out, her gut clenching.
Daly lay stretched on a low stone wall, quite dead. His chest gaped open, blood still bubbling up and over to paint the pale stone of the wall in ribbons of glistening red.
Anna turned away, hand over her mouth to still the sound of wretching. Renny, though she gripped the stone in fists gone white knuckled and swallowed back hot saliva at the sight and smell of Daly’s blood, kept her gaze on the scene.
The low wall circled a depression in the floor, at the center of which stood a huge stone block, carved all over with more beasts and armored figures. The man-thing swayed nearby, drooling brains, yet obscenely still animate. On the other side of the dead boy and the wall, a man stood, coppery skinned and dark bearded. His eyes were keen and mad. The long, split-legged tunic he wore over wrapped silks and leather boots was richly embroidered in somber colors, but muddy and stained.
He held aloft the pool boy’s dripping heart in one hand, a dagger, twin to the one Renny now had, in his other hand. His hands and sleeves were coated with fresh blood that shone wetly in the light of the candles set along the wall. An ill-smelling smoke rose from them.
Renny held Anna back when she would have charged from hiding on the grim tableau. Daly was dead; they were too late. But she didn’t mean to lose Anna or die herself. When the taller girl cast her a hot, furious glance, Renny shook her arm and pointed to the room behind them. Anna subsided, nodding after a moment, face pale.
The anteroom had racks of ancient weapons and piles of armor. Though any leather or fabric had long ago rotted to dust, the metal remained, impossibly gleaming, seemingly impervious to the age of the place. As the man spoke over Daly’s corpse, Anna swiftly appropriated a short sword. Renny found a small weapon like a miniature crossbow, all of metal, with levered winding gear and a brace of bolts cunningly fitted to its underside. She examined its workings while Anna tested the sword’s weight.
“Elder Gods of Zavala,” the man was meanwhile intoning, “Zavala that was, Zavala, lost in the time before, Zavala, forgotten temple city of Zamora, hear my petition.” He paced to the stone block at the center of the circular depression. “I, Deimnos, offer you the heart of this youth, cut living from his chest--the key that is written will open the tomb of the Lazuli Heart.”
He set the dripping, pulpy organ in a niche carved into the stone of the tomb, then touched his bloody hand to a notched circle above it.
All those present and possessing breath, hidden and observed alike, held it. A hissing moaned through the chamber, licking at the walls like wind. The foul candles guttered. Grinding sounded up through the stone tomb, some ancient mechanism moving. Slowly, the tomb opened, a slab of stone retreating down into the floor, taking the offering of fresh heart with it.
A tongue of stone slid forward from within the dark maw. The large skeleton of some creature lay on it. It was the size of a horse, but with a jaw hinged and fanged for the hunting of large game. The bones were ivory-yellow; they should long ago have been dust.
In the cage of the skeleton’s ribs a round object hung, a sphere of some dense black substance, shot through with veins of deep blue.
This, clearly, was Deimnos’s aim. With strong hands he cracked one, then another, and a third of the great ribs in order to reach it. His eyes blazed with a raw hunger somehow terrible to see.
Seeing her friend shiver, Renny whispered, “Annaria?”
The other girl’s expression cleared and hardened. “Ready, Dark Meridian.”
While Anna hefted the sword, Renny loaded a bolt into the crossbow and set her aim. She fired, but the bolt only hit Deimnos glancingly--enough to stagger him back, if as much in startlement as with the force of the bolt--as Anna charged out yelling. Renny followed with the crossbow reloaded.
With a swing of the long sword, Anna finished the job of severing the man-thing’s head from its body. Finally the foul thing swayed and sank like a sack of meat to the ground.
Deimnos recovered himself quickly, stepping back to the skeleton.
“Stop,” Renny said, training the crossbow on him. “That was only a warning shot. I won’t miss the next time.” She hoped. “Step back. And again.” While she held him at bay, Anna went to the skeleton and, with nimble hands, extracted the black sphere. As she touched it, blue light mossed briefly up her arms, seeming to fade into her skin. She came to stand with Renny, sword clamped under one arm, sphere cradled in her hands.
Deimnos stared at them, as if at the unlikeliest thing he’d ever encountered. Then he laughed, contempt in the twist of his mouth. “You have no idea what you hold.”
“That’s true,” Anna said, examining the sphere. “But you killed Daly to get it--”
“--so we’d rather you didn’t have it,” Renny finished.
He examined them more closely, a hint of curiosity touching his face. “You come from whatever place it is I sent my lich to fetch a heart, I think.” His voice slid over them, around them, resonant, calm. Hypnotic. “I had a boy along for the purpose, but he got loose and drowned trying to escape.” Deimnos gestured, long fingers moving like fronds in water, and the girls swayed slightly. “The cities and habited places of Zamora are far from ready reach here. So I sent the lich elsewhere for one. You are the ones who mangled it, I suppose?”
“We are,” Anna said. At the hollow, mesmerized sound of her voice, Renny shook her head and stopped swaying. She kicked Anna lightly on the shin.
“And now you’ve rendered it useless. I’ll need a new servant. Perhaps two. Give the Heart to me. You have no idea what to do with it. It was years of arduous search and study led me to it, led me to this ancient temple city.” His voice lapped at them, insistent and sonorous, one of his hands slipping into his robes.
“Stop!” Renny yelled. She fired the bow, but it was too late: the bolt sizzed in blue flame, falling from the air as Deimnos flung a fine powdery substance in its path, igniting the air on a string of intoned words. A searing flash momentarily blinded Renny. She heard the man intoning more words.
Blinking, she saw that Anna had stopped swaying but was now intent on the sphere and plowed into her, tumbling them both out of the way as a gout of flame singed the air where they’d been. Heat blasted them and Renny rolled to put out a flame on her jeans leg.
As she levered another bolt into the crossbow with shaking fingers, Renny looked worriedly at her distracted companion. The other girl stared into the sphere, lips moving, the orb itself beginning to glow with a nimbus of blue-shot, spectral black shimmer.
Renny raised the bow to find Deimnos looking from the skeleton on the stone tongue to Anna.
“Stop,” he commanded. “You do not understand what you are doing.”
“I do,” Anna said softly, still staring into the sphere, her voice and words strange. “It speaks into me like…it’s like a dream out of the depths of time, a heavy, lost dream.”
The air shuddered and blurred about the bones of the skeleton, seeming to writhe. The broken ribs curved back whole, next muscles, veins, organs and skin knitting themselves rapidly, the same spectral blue-tinged black glow fizzing over all until there lay on the slab an enormous black cat. A tiger. Its rough black fur, thinly striped in cobalt blue, glittered with cosmic light, like the beast had rolled in the cold stardust of deep space.
Anna ceased her murmuring, looking up from sphere to tiger as its muscles bunched and it flowed to its feet on huge paws. Its eyes were black pits.
The growl it loosed shuddered through stone and blood alike.
Blinking, Renny turned her attention to Deimnos and saw him gathering himself for some other trick or spell. She fired the bow, planting a bolt in the sorcerer’s shoulder.
Cursing, he staggered back, one hand to the bolt, but resumed his muttering, turning toward the girls, mustering whatever spell he was chewing to spit it at them.
“Get him, boy,” Anna said into the sphere. Giving a yowl that seemed to rip the universe wide, the great cat leapt on Deimnos. Curved claws little shorter than the dagger at Renny’s belt opened Deimnos neck to hip as huge jaws closed over his head and one shoulder. The tiger flung Deimnos into the air, then batted the torn body, paws growing red with blood.
Eventually it sat back with a rumble and began to wash the blood from one paw.
Now Renny did retch, turning away and leaning over. When she came up, wiping her mouth and trying to stop shaking, she saw Anna, staring into the sphere, a pale girl in jeans and a t-shirt, composed and unaffected in the midst of the blood-heavy gloom.
The tiger showed no interest in killing them, but only sat, the cold glitter on its black fur moving with its rumbling.
“Anna,” Renny said. “Anna--Annaria,” and her friend finally looked up. “Come on.”
They searched and found Deimnos’s pack of provisions, plundered it for food and what else seemed useful, leaving the rest.
“We need to see where we are,” Renny said then.
“Up top?” Anna seemed herself, though she kept the sphere close.
As they back-tracked to find a way up, the tiger joined them, padding along by Anna. Continuing upward, they found an exit, another squared-off doorway of carved and jeweled stone. It was partly tumbled down, stone rubble telling some long forgotten tale.
Atop the temple the carved stone of pillars, latticed canopies, pavilions and long dry fountains mazed the place. Dark weeds grew up among the pavings, here and there the gold and opal shimmer of the stone blurred over with lichens. Malignant secrets seemed to sleep in the shadows of the overgrown, once-tame gardens amid the stone works, fruit trees strangled by rank vines.
The girls walked through this dead place under the brooding late-morning sky, to reach one edge of the square. They looked out over what there was to see.
Seven more of the square temples, topped by tangled vegetation and ruins, had their foundations sunk in the canals that formed an uneven grid among them. Beyond this in one direction lay the black and red crags. The massive crater of a blown volcano rose among them, a steaming green lake surrounding it. From this the canals issued. In the other direction more mountains marched into the distance, these grey with caps of snow on the highest peaks.
Renny glanced uneasily at the tiger, and at the sphere in Anna’s hands. She had misgivings about the bond the other girl seemed to have formed with the arcane object. Not to mention the beast.
“Any chance that thing has told you how to get us home?”
“Not yet,” Anna said, turning it in her fingers. She shook her head. “I’m not sure it can.” Holding it up, she shuddered slightly. “Or that I should try to find out. It weighs into my mind. It’s…alien.”
“You did go kind of strange back there.”
“It’s all strange, though, isn’t it? Maybe we need it.” At that, she saw the tiger watching her and stared into the black pits of its eyes. Renny watched, gripping the dagger at her belt.
Then Anna nodded.
Renny shifted worriedly at this inexplicable exchange.
The tiger sat, taller than Anna, and rumbled.
Fur, skin, muscle, all faded, writhing, in reverse of the earlier process, peeling off into nowhere until only an ancient skeleton sat before them. A breath, and the skeleton clattered in on itself, crumbling to the ground, a pile of bones in the ruins.
Anna examined the sphere again. “I guess I better hold onto it.” She touched Renny’s arm in reassurance. “I’m still me.” Then, looking out into the mountainous distance, “Do you really want to go home?”
Renny grinned. “No. Not yet.”
There was the boat, gliding among the high walls as they poled and paddled, Annaria and Dark Meridian. Sometimes, too, the ghost of a great tiger was with them, as they headed south.
This story originally appeared in Cross Plains Universe: Texans Celebrate Robert E. Howard.