The first thing each morning Zarm the high priest scurried from his nest to the mouth of the burrow to see how the day would be. Quivering with excitement and anticipation -- to say nothing of fear lest the signs be portentous -- he gazed out at the sky. There, writ across it in the stars and clouds and especially in the great evil nebula that dominated the sky this time of the year, were tidings grave or grim or reassuring; and how seldom the latter. But had the tidings ever been more evil than today's? The scales rose along his back. The tendrils on his shoulders quavered with anxiety. Could the world be coming to an end? If only that were the case, thought Zarm, it would be so much better!
Each morning as Zarm scurried to the mouth of the burrow, the other Iplings of his clan woke and crept from their own nests and blinked rheumy eyes at the sight of the steadfast wizard already at his appointed responsibilities, and they followed to watch him. They kept back a safe distance, of course, out of the range of any thunderbolts that might be hurled at Zarm by Hastur or Black Pharol, say, for his effrontery in prying into the secrets of the gods. M'lDeemer, Zarm's erstwhile assistant always hung well back because he really did not like thunderbolts; but lately he was hanging back especially far because he had incurred Zarm's wrath. The rumor that Zarm's wrath was as the wrath of the Great Old One Ezindont was not exactly true, of course. M'lDeemer had served his late apprenticeship for long enough to grasp the element of modest exaggeration in that rumor. But it was nothing to face lightly, either, and M'lDeemer's lower dorsal quarters, with the lovely flaring fins of which he was so proud, had been severely scalded by the priest with a basin of hot water, and were tender yet.
Peering from a distance toward the quaking high priest and beyond him to the burrow opening, M'lDeemer could see the brightly lighted sky. He could not see much of it because Zarm's hind parts had broadened considerably in recent years; M'lDeemer thought them a scandalous sight with their grossly drooping dorsal appurtenances that in no way flared handsomely. He thought the sky appalling also, what he could see of it.
For one thing, it was bright, much too bright, never a reassuring sign. That meant that the nebula was visible in the sky. Worse, it meant that the nebula, known far and wide as the Lantern of Lost Worlds, glowered with hideous bursts of light. Often the gods would take pity upon the poor Iplings, those fine brave beings (the handsomest of which boasted gorgeous, flaring fins upon their dorsal quarters) who dwelt so courageously on a planet that was unfortunate enough to be this close to the Lantern of Lost Worlds. And in their pity the gods would cloak the demon fires that blazed inside the nebula in dark and roiling clouds of somber brown and shades of red so dark you could not match the color by drying the spilled blood of mammals for a dozen days.
But no clouds of any color shielded Ipling from the glare of the Lantern's conflagration now. It blazed there in the sky in all its dreadful crimson glory and burned down upon the seer ground of the poor planet with ferocious contempt. M'lDeemer was not close enough to see the pattern of the light as it played across the surface of the Lantern so he could not say exactly what might happen; and Zarm of course would reveal that answer soon enough. But he was curious, M'lDeemer was. Did the star lightning play across the range of the nebula cloud? Were there those horrible orange bursts of light that portended death and tribulation? Could the cloudbanks in the nebula be gathered in formations that suggested the shapes of beasts and monsters? Was the nebula bright red? There were so many signs to read, so much to learn from them, down to the very hour of your funeral if you but studied carefully. It was always M'lDeemer's favorite among the rites, rituals and mysteries Zarm taught him -- during those years he had been Zarm's acolyte. Of course he was not Zarm's acolyte any more.
All because of a jar of unguent, a single, wretched jar!
Making the holy salve was Zarm's greatest pleasure. At certain times he would seek out the lowest level of the community burrows where there grew a great and fulgent variety of fungi of almost any description you could name. He would spend hours in his excursions for them, seeking out those that glowed with the most corpse-like greenish radiation, those most pungent in their ripeness, those on the verge of forming on their surface pustules of dark, viscid pus. These he would lovingly gather and bring back to his sacristy where he would store them while they ripened more, filling the chamber with their emanations.
And none but Zarm himself would be allowed access to the sacristy in this time. Indeed, M'lDeemer had no objection to his exclusion then for he could not quite appreciate the resulting odors to the degree Zarm seemed to.
But once they had reached a point of ripeness where they seemed on the verge of bursting and filling the sacristy permanently with their mixtures of serum and bacteria, and above all else their smell, Zarm would take them into a workroom where he would lovingly labor over them for days on end to produce the sacred salve. And though the amount of the gathered fungi would exceed the size of Zarm's holy rump, at the last he would produce but one small jar of salve.
It was then his habit to proclaim an Hour of Ezindont. And all the dwellers of the burrow would gather in the temple excavation to sing psalms of praise to that hateful deity and lie to her in praise lest she come down from the Lantern of Lost Worlds and smite them with boils and foul breath, not to mention thunderbolts.
But most of all, Zarm would smear his body with the salve and prance and cavort and sermonize until he dropped from exhaustion. Oh, how the Hour of Ezindont dragged on, sometimes requiring of those who attended the ceremony (and it was mandatory among the congregation) that they spend half a day inhaling the fumes of the unguent that swathed him, mixed with the priest's own ripe sweat.
It was on these occasions, the high priest would assure his apprentice, that he achieved his closest communion with Ezindont. It occurred to M'lDeemer that it was odd enough that anyone would want such communion considering that Great Old One's uniform reputation among the highest scholars for unpleasantness. And that led to even further thought the upshot of which was that perhaps there was more to this salve than met the eye.
So one night, thinking Zarm safely concerned with other matters, M'lDeemer slipped into the workshop to investigate the salve. There was no trouble in finding it; the usually suspicious Zarm proved, just this once, unduly trusting: M'lDeemer found the jar on the otherwise bare workshop table. Removing the lid he poked his proboscis cautiously toward the substance. Indeed, as he had known it would, it proved pungent. So he tasted it.
Now it would be an error to accuse M'lDeemer of being a gourmand, but the truth is his tastes were not undeveloped, particularly as regards edible pastes. To be frank, he expected the stuff to be unpalatable. But he found it had a certain piquant, nutty flavor that was not expected. At his initial nibble he was astonished.
His second bite was more cautious, but it was also larger. He swabbed a digit around the inside of the jar, coating it with the salve and drawing it forth. He held the digit up for a moment, examining it until he began to fear the glob would fall. He hastily and expertly poked it into his mouth and slurped it down.
He was at once and the same time delighted with his discovery; so much so that he could hardly resist putting that selfsame digit into the jar again and running it around the jar's inside wall once more until another heavy blob clung to it. He held it to the light, admired the color a moment, and then devoured it.
"What's this?" cried an all too familiar voice from the open doorway behind him. "What's this? What's this?"
For there stood Zarm who was not quite so busy as M'lDeemer may have wished. And to the priest's demand for an explanation, M'lDeemer could offer none. For one thing he was too astonished to think of any. For another his mouth was full.
"You are eating it?" demanded Zarm. "You are eating the holy unguent that must be slathered upon my body so that we may suffer the Holy Hour of Ezindont and stay evil from our nation? You wretch, this is blasphemy! Worse! It is an insult to me!"
To truncate a scene not that susceptible to embroidery anyway, M'lDeemer was cast forth from his apprenticeship in utter disgrace and not a little pain. In the dragging days and woeful weeks since, he pointedly cowered in the background whenever Zarm appeared publically.
After what seemed a long time spent quivering in the burrow entranceway, Zarm turned, threw two sets of limbs skyward and announced, "Woe unto us!"
As the frightened populace watched him in awe, he staggered five or six steps back into the burrow and offered a minute clarification: "Woe, woe, unto us all!"
There was a hushed and alarmed murmuring among the crowd and now that he had their attention, Zarm dropped to his knees and began to chant his lamentations.
Now, M'lDeemer might be in disgrace, but in his day he had paid attention, at least sometimes. He realized it would be a while before Zarm got down to actually explaining what was going on. So, taking a wide path around the priest, M'lDeemer went to the tunnel mouth and peered out to see the signs and portents for himself.
Seldom had he ever seen the dreaded light of the Lantern of Lost Worlds shine with such blood-red brightness. It blazed almost like a sun. It cast its light with unprecedented brilliance across the pocked surface of the planet. Great, black shadows filled the hollows of the cliffs and crater wall around the plain where the burrow was excavated. The distant mountains caught and reflected the light so that they seemed afire. The air was still and electric with -- well, M'lDeemer supposed, electricity. It was charged with the energy the nebula was releasing. And the clouds, the shape of the roiling clouds of dust and energy and such that formed the nebula, augured much. Too much. M'lDeemer began to quiver just as Zarm had.
Oh, woe unto us, thought M'lDeemer. Woe, woe, woe.
It was at this point that he caught sight of something he was not at all prepared for. A flash of light in the sky between this small, grubby planet of the Iplings, and the fearsome nebula. A flash of light that was not even red, but yellow.
A light that flashed groundward.
It struck some distance away but with a great impact that sent a blazing glare of light across the plain followed by a harrowing roar of thunder. M'lDeemer leaped back into the burrow and safely away from the door lest the blaze camouflage a thunderbolt from Pharol. But as he rose from where he landed, a cautious examination of his nether regions suggested to M'lDeemer that there had been no such thunderbolt. He turned around and found himself staring almost snout to snout with Zarm.
The high priest's eyestalks trembled menacingly.
M'lDeemer's eyestalks trembled also, though with something other than menace. A well of emotion rose up within him and he could not control himself.
M'lDeemer wrapped several of his arms around the astonished priest and hugged him tightly.
Zarm stiffened with fury but his efforts to express his disgust with M'lDeemer brought forth only a sort of moist off-key blubbery sputtering, so gripped was he with inchoate emotion. M'lDeemer let the high priest go after a few moments (intolerably long ones to Zarm) and pushed past him, knocking him over in the process. He faced the flabbergasted congregants and said, "Woe unto us! But especially, woe unto Zarm!"
Zarm was on his feet, had taken a deep breath and was facing the upstart, his face dark with emotion and his voice stark. He said, "Oh wretched miscreant! May the juiciest curses of the foulest of the gods rain down upon -- what's that? What's that you say? Woe unto me?"
M'lDeemer turned back toward the priest and for a moment it seemed he would hug the poor being again, which caused Zarm to jump backwards. But all he said was, "We shall miss this great priest."
"Miss this great priest?" said Zarm, rather blankly. "Miss me? Miss me? Why would they miss me?"
"The signs and omens," said M'lDeemer. Now the crowd came closer to better hear what those signs and omens were. "Oh, how grand it must be. The gods have chosen thee, brave Zarm."
"Chosen?" said the astonished high priest. "Me? Chosen me? The gods?"
"Perhaps Ezindont herself," said M'lDeemer. His dorsal fins quivered with envy and joy for Zarm. "Oh such joy it is to be the acolyte of one so chosen --"
"Me? Chosen?" said Zarm. He somehow did not sound like one who felt himself especially honored. Then something else occurred to him. "Acolyte? What acolyte?"
"Come," said M'lDeemer, tugging on the priest's jaw tendrils. "There is no time for us to waste discussing petty technicalities. The gods have spoken and there is little time to make you ready."
"Ready? Me ready?" said Zarm and one who perhaps regarded him as less than perfectly dedicated might have thought to detect suspicion in his tone.
"Come on!" said M'lDeemer. "There is little time and we must make you ready!" And he grabbed the holy priest even more firmly by the sensitive tendrils of his cheeks and pulled.
Zarm let out a yelp at the pain but so sincere did it sound that most of the burrow-dwellers took it for a cry of holy devotion. M'lDeemer pulled him toward the entranceway. Zarm waved his arms frantically (and again witnesses turned to one another to comment on the level of holy being's spirit), in an attempt to point back in the direction of his nest. Did not one make oneself ready in the privacy of one's nest where one had the proper garments for any ritual occasion, to say nothing of cool and fortifying wines? He tried also to speak but so firm was M'lDeemer's grasp on the tendrils growing from Zarm's tender cheeks that the sounds Zarm made were unfortunately similar to the sounds of a man possessed.
At the entrance M'lDeemer paused. And while Zarm stood in the door peering out at the fearsome nebula and fiercely massaging his cheeks, the young acolyte turned to the gathered populace and with a gesture of rapture, he spoke. "The portents are of a great threat to our well being, a rain of starstones. They shall pound and hammer our nation, wreaking havoc upon the ceilings of our diggings. Yea, the gods shall test us severely. It shall rain rock and fire from the sky!"
As one the gathered Iplings gasped.
"But, Lo!" said he, gesturing with a flourish toward Zarm. "A greater god, the Great Old One Ezindont, She who confounded the Elder Gods Zazarin and Nodens, and filled Rhodanthmes with vapors of fear, has sent us a hero, one who will save us from the menace." He poked Zarm proudly with a fore digit. Zarm stopped massaging his cheeks and rubbed the offended portion of his nethers. "Down, Iplings, down upon your knees, as many sets of them as you can manage and pray for his success. Our fate is in the hands of Zarm."
And without any further ceremony, M'lDeemer shoved Zarm with all his might, propelling him out of the burrow and into the night. He pushed him headlong across the plain to a certain spot.
Above their heads the dread nebula boiled and churned with dust and light and energy, troubling itself with all the shades of red and brown to form the shape and shades of portents and prophecies. Zarm stared up at it and his teeth chattered like -- like --
Well, like meteors dropping on a rocky plain.
He said, "Starstones? Are you certain of the starstones?"
M'lDeemer pointed off to the western edge of the nebula. "See that little bump? Isn't that the orange of disaster and the shape of starstones?"
"Bless my soul," said Zarm, beginning to shake. "It is."
M'lDeemer thought he saw a flash of light low on the horizon. Far off something struck the plain.
"I was looking over there," said Zarm, vaguely, pointing off in another direction. "I thought we were facing a plague of boils."
"You were always a bit colorblind," said M'lDeemer, not unkindly. "That's not the shade of green for boils. I think it means a bumper crop of fungus in the lower chambers." He pointed back toward the orange bump. "But that definitely means meteors."
"But you aren't worried. I can tell. After all, why should you be worried? Ezindont will protect you.
Zarm scowled at him. "You nit," he snarled. "Ezindont was imprisoned in a jar by Zazarin thousands of years ago!"
"She was? I never knew that." M'lDeemer was staring at the sky. Were those flashes of light just above the horizon?
"Of course you don't, you fool. I remember you being soundly asleep the day I gave that sermon."
"Oh," said M'lDeemer. "That changes things, I suppose." Then he added in more encouraging tones, "But I am certain you will manage." Those were flashes of light above the horizon. M'lDeemer started back to the burrow with haste.
Zarm glared after the fool. Then it suddenly sunk in why the fool must be in such a hurry. Zarm glanced back over his shoulder. With a shout of "Zipes!" he realized the sky was filled with streaks of light. Something struck the ground a body length to his left, then another. He turned in panic and as he did so his third set of legs tangled with his front set. He fell. Three somethings struck the ground to his right and another to his left. They were much closer than the earlier impacts. He scrambled up from his fall and gave a look back before starting for the burrow. It was a mistake. Something bright and fast was coming straight at him.
M'lDeemer reached the burrow and leaped into the questionable shelter of the entranceway. He peered back at Zarm.
What he saw astounded him. Starstones streaked and crashed all around where Zarm stood, but there, indeed, he stood. Upright, heroic and defiant, while the starstones crashed to the ground all around him. Their landing struck fire and thunder from the ground but Zarm did not move.
Others came to the entrance and stood behind M'lDeemer, watching Zarm's performance. Within moments it was over. The meteors stopped falling. Overhead the Lantern of Lost Worlds blazed redly. On the ground the dust settled. Zarm still stood there unmoving.
The Iplings peering at him from the burrow opening gasped and muttered in praise of his courage. But after a while they began to wonder. The starstones were gone. Why wasn't he coming back home?
After a somewhat more respectable wait than necessary, someone suggested that M'lDeemer go out to get him.
The ground around Zarm was torn and pocked with meteor impacts. Pebbles and shards of rock littered the area. But the ground the high priest stood on was flat and untouched. Three of M'lDeemer's hearts began racing. Had something unprecedented happened? Was Zarm a Chosen One? Was this a miracle?
He came up behind the priest and called his name. Zarm did not move. With a sort of nervous caution, M'lDeemer went around in front of Zarm and gazed into his face.
M'lDeemer had never liked the face of Zarm. Frankly it was ugly. But it was always an expressive face capable of registering every nuance of an emotion. And every nuance of the emotion of shock was writ across that ugly face right now.
In the center of Zarm's forehead was a perfectly neat small hole, blackened around the edges.
That afternoon a procession of selected notables of Zarm's congregation moved in stately, mournful cadence to where their figuratively fallen priest awaited them. While a crew of work beings constructed a catapult nearby, the celebrants moved around the priest in measured, wretched pace and chanted dolefully.
At last they lifted Zarm and carried him across the ground to the now ready catapult and dumped him into it. And as every being present (save only Zarm) cheered, the corpse was catapulted at the sky.
As the priest's remains became a speck in the sky and vanished at last from sight, M'lDeemer wondered if Zarm might not actually leave the planet of the Iplings, perhaps eventually to reach that world where the starstones came from. And there crash into a plain, perhaps even striking a starstone and rendering it senseless with awe.
Thus, that very day, was M'lDeemer elevated to the position of high priest of the burrow. It was a solemn moment occasioned by gaudy costuming and much food and drink, the latter helpful in getting through the lengthy sermon with which the new priest inaugurated his career.
And afterwards, M'lDeemer went down into the lower chambers to search for pungent fungi. Sure enough, it looked as if the year would yield a bumper crop. # # # # #