The City of Khar
G E Shutt
Having concluded my business in the city a day early, I decided to explore the old quarter with its winding streets and small shops full of unusual wares. I had promised my family presents, should the deal be a profitable one, and I wanted to get something out of the
I had just descended a small flight of steps to a street I did not recognize when my eye was caught by the window opposite. It appeared to be full of glass balls, each no bigger than an apple. They hung on display with no visible means of suspension, which piqued my interest.
Above the window, in large lettering, it proclaimed to be ‘The Repository of Imagination’, and underneath in smaller script ‘A Tale for a Tale’. I looked closely at the globes and each one held a different scene: a strange underwater monster swimming the ocean’s depth; a rolling grassland with dog-like animals apparently running from a shadow cast on the ground behind them; all manner of things were there, some so incomprehensible I could make neither head nor tail of what I was looking at.
Out of interest I entered the shop through the door set slightly back from the street. A bell rang above my head.
“Welcome, welcome.” A small man appeared from the dark recesses at the back. He wore a gray robe, as though he were a monk. His hair was likewise gray and balding but this lack was more than made up for by his long, flowing beard which hung almost to his waist. He bowed to me in the manner of a man from the northern climes and offered me a seat. “Welcome to the Repository of Imagination, young sir. Do you have a tale you wish to hear?”
At this he waved his arm at the window display and nodded to me as if to indicate I should pick one of the globes which hung there.
“What is this place?” I asked, a little confused, for I had thought it to be a shop but there was no counter, just some comfortable chairs arranged around a low table on which sat a tray with glasses, a carafe of wine and a plate of cheeses. It seemed almost like a reception room in someone’s home rather than a place of business.
“This is a gathering post for The Repository. We collect tales from around the Universe and store them for posterity. If you have a tale to tell I can record it here.” He indicated a small machine which I hadn’t noticed until then. “In payment for your tale I can, in return, tell you one of these I have here.” Again he waved to the window where my eye was suddenly caught by a globe to my right. It was a scene of trees, huge and green such as I had never
seen before. On closer inspection I thought I could make out the faces of creatures looking back at me. They were humanoid and yet not men but I could see intelligence in their gaze. I was intrigued and the little man smiled at my obvious interest.
“I shall need a tale from you, my friend.” he said, and poured us both a glass of wine, which was cool despite the heat outside. I sat and sipped thoughtfully, discarding many of the stories I knew as being ones he would probably have already heard. I needed something new, something only I could recount. My eyes were constantly drawn to the trees in the glass ball, and each time there was a subtle change, almost as though the story inside was
being played out in slow motion.
Then I had it, I knew which tale this man would want to hear. I nodded and he fixed an empty globe into the machine then indicated I should proceed.
Far to the south of Deren there lies the solid sea where the iceboats ply their trade in the dark spices. To cross the sea takes two years and seventeen days by the fastest boat. On the far side is the land of Faheh where the rolling rocks move ever round and round growing smaller and smaller until, as fine sand, they settle to form the H’nah desert.
It has long been said that somewhere in that desert, deep within the topaz sands, there lies the fabled city of Khar where the people live forever and magic reigns.
I once knew a baker whose cousin, Alaf, was a captain on the spice boat The Beggar’s Hand. He swore that he had picked up a traveler, a poor wretch found on the spice shores at landfall. Karshoom was this unfortunate’s name.
This Karshoom told the strangest tale of sorcerers, wizardry, and enchantments. The sailors would scarcely have believed him, had Karshoom not sworn on the Book of Daresh that he had seen these things with his own eyes.
Karshoom was half starved when they found him, his clothes barely more than tatters and threads. He told how he had been brought over the ice two years before, give or take a turn or two. He had made his way inland, surviving the rolling rocks, until he found himself in the centre of the sands, where the city of Khar was said to be.
Karshoom had with him a page of an ancient tome which he had come across on his extensive travels through the countries of the mainland. The page gave details of how to summon the city so that you can gain entry to its gold-paved streets. Karshoom sat and waited until the time was right.
When he was found, Karshoom no longer had the page with him. He refused to give anyone the information he had read upon it and, perhaps, when you have heard the story he told, you will understand why.
The night sky sparkled like a rich wife’s fingers and reflected back from the topaz sands. The incantations complete I had only to wait for the constellation of Daresh to align itself with the horizon. The second this occurred there was a rumbling and a hissing and the sands began to shake beneath my feet so that I was thrown violently to the ground. I lay there for many hours until the shaking stopped by which time the sun had risen. When I had recovered myself and wiped the sand from my eyes, I saw, there in front of me, the city of Khar, its gates open before me. I had to shield my eyes from the brightness of its burnished walls.
I got slowly to my feet and walked towards the elaborately carved gates. All around the outside, on the huge blocks of stone, were relief pictures of fantastical beasts and richly dressed people. There were scenes showing festivals, weddings and religious celebrations, scenes showing groups of children at play and there was even one of the desert and the rolling stones. So well-carved were these that I could have sworn that I saw movement
within the scenes, almost as though they were windows opening on to real life.
I had nearly reached the gate when someone appeared and beckoned to me. I could not make out their appearance because they were covered from head to toe in a long, white robe with a hood that shaded their face. As I got closer I could see that the white material of the robe was shot through with threads of gold which reflected the sunlight like water ripples.
“Welcome, traveler, my name is Manoof.” He removed his hood as he called out and I saw a young, handsome face, hardly touched by the sun, much as you would expect the face of a prince to look.
Manoof greeted me as though I were a long-lost friend, grasping me to his chest with affection. He then led me into the city and to a small café where we were served chilled tea with a hint of spice. The cafe looked out over a small park and we sat at tables under the shade of a neeva tree, its fragrant flowers dropping delicate orange petals at our feet. Manoof told me of the wonders of the city where no one went hungry or, in fact, wanted
for anything as the city provided everything. Many of the inhabitants spent their days studying at one of the city’s vast libraries. Many were artists or writers who practised their crafts for the enjoyment of all.
After a while I asked how the city had come in to being and Manoof told me of the sorcerer Panesh. Two centuries before, he had traveled the world but had been disappointed with the ignorance and degradation of the world and the unwillingness of the people to better themselves. Finally he decided to settle here in the H’nah desert. He built this city using his magic, and then traveled again, collecting like-minded scholars and their families. He found artisans, whether they be painters or poets, sculptors or chefs. Within a year the city was populated and Panesh again used his magic so that it vanished beneath the sands.
I asked Manoof why the city disappeared. Surely it should be open to anyone who wished to take advantage of its libraries and to see its wonderful artefacts.
“Oh, we couldn’t have just anyone coming here. We would be overrun for who, once here, would wish to leave? Only those who can prove their intellect by summoning the city from the sands are allowed access. The city does not answer to the call of just anyone, Karshoom, only the worthy are answered, only people such as yourself.” Manoof smiled and for a second I saw missing and blackened teeth, a trick of the light I thought, then he reached out and hugged me and I was overwhelmed by the most revolting odor, a rotten,
fetid smell. The sensation lasted for only a few moments before, once again, I could smell the slightly spicy smells coming from the various buildings around us, the neeva flower’s orangey-vanilla aroma and the warm honey smell of the golden stonework of the buildings and roads.
After a while we moved deeper into the city, down streets of potters and carpenters, past portrait painters and carvers of stone. Here and there I saw men carving the stonework of the buildings, fantastic murals could be seen all over Khar.
Eventually we reached a small inn and entered by a main archway which was without a door, the whole place being open to the street. I looked quizzically at Manoof who laughed at my mystification.
“There is no crime here, Karshoom, we all have everything we need. There is no money, ask for something and it is yours.” We arrived at the bar of the inn where a jovial-looking woman stood cleaning already-sparkling glasses and smiling at our conversation.
“Manoof!” she exclaimed with pleasure. “It is wonderful to see you, and who is this? A newcomer?”
“This is Karshoom, Barbay. It was he who summoned the city. I was wondering if you could put him up until he finds his feet?”
“Come, sit down, I’ll get you something to eat then I’ll prepare the best room. Would you like a bath? If you need anything, anything at all, you must ask.”
I sat down at a table while Barbay, the woman, bustled about behind the bar preparing me a drink. Manoof excused himself, saying that he had a few things to do, but he would be back later once I had settled in. Barbay brought me a tall frosted glass of beer then disappeared into the kitchen to prepare me a meal. I sat and sipped my drink, congratulating myself on my good fortune.
Within moments Barbay returned with a tray laden with food; fresh fruits, cooked meats and warm crusty bread.
“How is all this possible?” I asked, the wonder of it all almost too much to take in.
“This is Khar,” Barbay said, smiling. “Everything is possible here.”
I thanked her and she left to prepare me a room. When she had gone I reached out and took a roll from the tray. Breaking it open I breathed in its warm, comforting aroma but stopped as I saw what seemed to be something crawling in its doughy centre. I looked again but saw nothing amiss, however my appetite was dulled. I took a darni fruit, cutting it open with the knife provided. A rank, mouldy smell rose from it despite its apparent freshness, and I replaced it on the tray.
When Barbay returned I had eaten nothing and she looked enquiringly at me.
“I think perhaps I am overtired.” I said apologetically and was immediately puzzled by the hard stare that she gave me.
“Come. Your room is ready.” She said, all smiles once more. “I will call you when Manoof returns.”
My room was on the first floor and equipped with everything I could possibly want. A side room contained a sumptuous bath, already filled with steaming water upon which flower petals floated. Jars of pungent oils and scented soap sat ready for use and a razor and comb were set out next to a beautifully ornate mirror. I thanked Barbay who left, closing the door behind her.
I sat for a while on the softly yielding bed and looked out of the window from which I could see many of the city’s buildings. A man was seated on the pavement across the street, a carving of an iceboat emerging on the wall as I watched. A movement farther down the street caught my eye and I looked away but in that brief moment when I was transferring my sight a different view was revealed to me.
Crumbling buildings crammed together by the side of a street which nearer resembled a running sewer. Large chunks of masonry littered the road where they had fallen from the walls. Tattered,dirty rags hung in windows where, only moments before, I had seen colourful curtains. A skeletal figure crouched in the muck and chipped at a slime-covered wall, open, weeping sores covering his body. I gasped in shock and looked back at the man and all was suddenly as it had been. I sat and considered the possibility that I was going
mad and had begun to hallucinate. Then I sat and considered the possibility that I was already mad and was experiencing brief lucid moments when reality was breaking through. Neither of these possibilities appealed to me and I decided to consider another one, that there was an outside influence, but why would someone want me to see these horrible things?
I lay back on the bed and closed my eyes, puzzling over what was going on. After my exhausting day it wasn’t long before I began to doze. Still aware of my surroundings but not quite awake I could hear strange scuttling sounds in the room with me, as though rats and other creatures were scurrying around. As I lay there listening I felt something small and hairy brush past my face and sprang fully awake in an instant.
I opened my eyes to an awful sight, mouldering walls ran with green-slimed damp where beetles and other many-legged creatures crawled. The floor was half-rotted wooden planks which, despite their sorry state, still echoed with the sound of claws as enormous rats foraged around for the less nimble beasts. One particularly bold creature sat at my feet and regarded me thoughtfully while crunching on an exceptionally revolting yellow-and-red beetle.
I shot back on the bed, my hands and feet ripping chunks out of the rotted covers, a small voice in the back of my head congratulated me on not having got into the bed when I lay down. A large centipede dropped on my right arm from the wall behind me and I yelled out in horror before leaping from the bed and running for the door. The landing was in much the same state as my room and I trod very carefully; suddenly realising that, at any moment, I could break through and fall to the floor below. I took extra care as I went
down the stairs, these were even more rotten than the floor above.
As I descended I heard voices in the barroom and headed straight for them. The sight that met me was one I will never forget. Two people sat at the skeleton of a table on which lay the remains of some rotten fruit, bread and meat, all of which crawled with maggots. The people bore little resemblance to those I had met earlier and yet I identified them as Barbay and Manoof. Both were dressed in filthy rags and had lank, greasy, matted hair. On seeing me they both stood and smiled broadly, displaying missing and blackened teeth. I backed away, my face showing the horror I felt, and their smiles vanished.
“He’s another delusional.” Manoof said to Barbay, then he turned back to me. “Come, Karshoom, I’m afraid the glory and splendor of the city has been too much for your mind. You are experiencing a type of breakdown, unfortunately there is no cure and so you will have to leave us.”
I followed Manoof back through the city to the gate and all around me I saw squalor and decay. The smells and things I saw made me retch and, on reaching the gate, I fled the city without a backward glance. The H’nah desert was like an oasis to me and I scrubbed myself as clean as I could with the warm sands. When I had finished I looked back but the city was gone, forever I hope.
I cannot say whether the delusional madness was theirs or mine. Perhaps Khar is a great and wondrous place or, perhaps, it is an illusion.
I know that I shall never return.
When I had finished, the little man beamed at me. He seemed to think I had given him something precious.
“A fine tale my friend and more than worthy of a tale in return. A man who mistrusts his own senses.” He reached out and plucked the forest globe from the window without any signs of how it hung there. “Here is a story of the tree-dwellers, and of the violence of the natural world. It is a cautionary tale for it reminds us all of our mortality.” He fitted the globe into the machine and the little man and the room vanished.
This is the story of the bravery of No-Mar Shereia and De-bar Haranaey taken from the Rememberings in the Year of the Great Storm.
The Rememberings are what we have been.
Recalling the way things were so that all can learn.
The Rememberings shape the way things will be. .
Without the past there can be no future.
I stood like a ghost in the trees and watched and listened as the story unfolded.
This was a recording from the Repository of Imagination. The city image was extracted under license from Shutterstock from the human known as Angela Harburn, who retains the copyright to the image in her local reality.
Related Recordings: The Story of No-Mar Shereia: To the Edge