From the author: Escaping from the Sultan's dungeons, a roguish band seeks to claim the treasures within the lost Black Crypt, unaware of the ancient evil that lurks in the tombs.
The Crypt of the Cobra
C. L. Werner
The swarthy fist buried itself into Grenulf's cheek, the impact of the blow knocking the brawny Wehrlander to the straw-strewn floor of his cell. Grenulf dabbed at the crimson trickle running from the corner of his mouth. He looked at the blood on the end of his finger and scowled at the gloating Isicarite.
“You want some more, eh dog!” the jailer taunted as he fastened the cold iron manacles about the prisoner's wrists. The Isicarite rose from his task, dragging Grenulf up with him by the chain which was attached to the manacles. The Wehrlander's face twisted in pain as the Isicarite planted his fist into Grenulf's belly, following the blow with a savage jerk of the chain.
“Now move your filthy carcass, by the black hands of Nergal!” the jailer snarled, leading his charge out of the cell.
The Isicarite led Grenulf down the dark, rat-infested maze of corridors which had been the Wehrlander's home for the last two months, a black hell with neither sun nor moon, in which the only illumination was that of the jailers' torches, heralding either a beating or a death battle with the vermin for the obscene scraps fed to the prisoners. Many times in those months Grenulf had been taken from his cell, led down the black halls to the torture chambers deep in the earth, halls of agony where black-hooded fiends flayed flesh until their victims' screams reached Sultan Muhrmeht's court far above. Now, Grenulf scratched at his blond beard in bewilderment. This was not the way to the torture halls; he was being led higher, not lower into the dungeons.
At last, the Isicarite stopped before a rusty iron door set into the wall at his side. The jailer reached beneath his leather hauberk, his swarthy hand returning with a massive metal ring from which dangled a host of keys. The Isicarite selected a key and opened the lock of the cell door. He then pulled Grenulf to him by the prisoner's chains. The jailer's lips parted in a toothy snarl as he removed Grenulf's manacles. Grenulf massaged his raw wrists as he was pushed into the room beyond the door.
“Here he is, Kascus!” the Isicarite called into the cell after closing and locking the door again. “If he does not agree, kill him.” The jailer started to walk away from the door when he added, “With or without the Wehrlander, we move tonight.”
The light from the jailer's torch disappeared into the darkness of the subterranean corridors as the Isicarite descended back into the lower reaches of Muhrmet's dungeons. Grenulf marveled that the jailer's departure had not plunged him into absolute darkness. The occupants of the cell in which Grenulf now found himself had been granted a luxury unheard of in this black hell of perpetual night, they had been allowed light. Grenulf looked at the torches burning in iron brackets upon the room's walls before turning his eyes to the cell's other denizens.
The cell was large, easily ten times so large as the two-foot by ten-foot hole which had been Grenulf's home since arousing the Sultan's displeasure. In the center of the room was a large wooden table upon which parchment and ink rested, as well as the remains of a roasted peacock and several bottles of wine. About the table were several men of different cast and hue. The men watched intently as one of their number, a lean Khemran dressed in robes of sanguinary shade, gazed at a piece of yellowed parchment lying upon the table before him.
“Come here, Wehrlander!” commanded one of the onlooking men. He was tall and lithely built his limbs muscular without the gross bulk of the barbarian. His skin was of a dark complexion, though definitely belonging to a white race and being several shades lighter than that of the swarthy Isicarites. The man's dark hair was long and tied back into a single long rope of hair which hung over his shoulder. The rogue was dressed in simple clothes, though in such repair as to be marveled at their being found covering a denizen of Isicar's prisons. Surely, thought Grenulf, this man has not suffered overmuch in this place.
“I said come here, cell-sword! This concerns you as much as it does ourselves,” hissed the rogue, his rat-like face pulling itself into a grimace of agitation. Grenulf looked into his accoster's small green eyes, eyes as impassioned as the Wehrlander's were cold.
“I would like to know whom I address and why I have been roused from my slumber and removed from my comfortable lodgings to be brought to this den of bribery-bought finery,” Grenulf challenged, holding his head high despite his filth-stained rags and bloodied face. The dark-haired man clenched his fists tightly as he fought down the swift temper which threatened to overwhelm him. In a moment, the lithe form ceased shaking and the passion passed.
“Know that I am Kascus of Talios and that I hold your liberty in my hands.” The thief held his palms out to Grenulf and then added, “Aye, your life, too, is in these hands.”
“What would you have of me, Taliosian?” Grenulf asked, his tone still defiant, betraying neither the genuine curiosity nor the faintest stirrings of hope which raced through the reaver's mind.
“You are Grenulf of Wehrland, mercenary and freebooter. Your sword is renowned throughout the city-states of the Heliopans and the emirates of Isicar. You have fought for nomad sheikhs in blighted Atalia, for Marsian prefects in the Khemran territories. You have battled satyr slavers in Pan-Leng and viscous orcs on the Visidal frontier. You have seen many lands and many battles but it is the Grenulf of Wehrland who fought against snake-worshipping dervishes in Sythia who is of importance to me. Your knowledge of Sythia is more important to me than the sword which slew a captain of Muhrmet's guard in a barroom brawl.” Kascus motioned for Grenulf to draw nearer the table. The Wehrlander, not liking the looks of the Taliosian thief nor the suggestion of venom in Kascus's voice, did so warily. He turned his blue eyes upon the parchment over which the Khemran yet stooped as he drew near the table and found the parchment to be a map of the lands of Isicar and Sythia.
“What business have you in Sythia?” asked the freebooter after examining the map. Kascus grinned at Grenulf wolfishly.
“Gold! Treasure! A king's fortune lying in the desert sands, forgotten even before the first Marsian called himself emperor!” The beady green eyes gleamed greedily as Kascus imagined the hoard which he would seize.
“And magic, knowledge lost to the dust of ages which may give a sorcerer the power of a thousand kings.” The Khemran lifted his shaven head, his deep-set eyes burning as brightly as those of the thief Kascus, twin pools of flame surrounded by leathery brown skin. Grenulf studied the sharp nose, thin lips and high forehead which combined to make the Khemran's face inhuman in its suggestion of cruelty. Grenulf was aware that the Khemran aroused in him an undefined sense of dread, a nearly subconscious feeling of fright and loathing.
“Sa-ank-met, the magician,” explained Kascus, pointing at the Khemran who had already returned his gaze to the map upon the table. “It is he who learned of the lost tomb which we would loot. Sa-ank-met was the acolyte of Muhrmet's high wizard when certain scrolls from Khemran came into the wizard's hands. The fool was so elated at his acquisition of a map telling of the location of the Black Crypt that he told his student of what lay within said crypt and after telling what he knew, fell before one of the very magics he had instructed his pupil in.” Kascus laughed and smiled at the Khemran sorcerer.
“Fortunately, Muhrmet's soldiers caught our friend before he was able to escape and he was forced to find another way to reach the Black Crypt.” Kascus laughed a second time, snatching a piece of peacock flesh and devouring the morsel.
“Your map shows you the way to Sythia clear enough,” stated Grenulf, the Wehrlander's suspicion of wizardry causing him to suspect Kascus' words even more. “Why do you need me?”
“The map is many ages old. The desert creeps across grassland and forest, devours cities and rivers. Water, Wehrlander, that is why you are here. Of all the denizens of these filthy halls, you alone have trod the sands between Isicar and the coast. You alone can tell us where water may be found, for we cannot hope to carry all that we shall require to cross the wastes.” The rat-faced thief sneered at the Wehrlander, certain of the man's course of action.
“I imagine that the pig who led me here is a member of your happy band, the promise of gold has slain the loyalty of better men.” Grenulf paused to tear a piece of meat from Kascus's slender fingers as the thief returned his attention to the peacock. “I am certain that my liberty is as assured as the meal which I was summoned too late to partake of more fully.” Grenulf chewed on the scrap of meat slowly, refusing to give the Taliosian the satisfaction of seeing the mercenary give in to the near-maddening hunger which wracked his body.
“What more do you offer?” said Grenulf at length, reaching for another piece of meat. Kascus once more fought down a fit of rage at this latest act of defiance.
“A half share of the treasure,” stated the Taliosian coldly. Grenulf tore a cup from the hand of one of the muscular Isicarites standing beside the table. The mercenary noisily drank the wine before speaking.
“And how much is your part?” Grenulf challenged. For an instant Kascus's body began to spring toward the freebooter's throat before the thief checked his reaction. The Taliosian snarled. Grenulf would not acknowledge the rogue any manner of hold over him, as had the others Kascus had chosen.
“Two shares for myself and Sa-ank-met,” the thief confessed.
“Then that is also what I wish,” stated Grenulf, grabbing a wine bottle from the table, less for the remnants of the wine than for the bottle's ability to be employed as a weapon should the mercenary have overplayed his hand. They needed him, but he was not irreplaceable.
Kascus looked at the Wehrlander, weighing his options while the Isicarite villains he had taken from their cells waited for their leader's decision. The Khemran continued to study the map, unconcerned with the monetary bickering.
“Very well, Wehrlander,” spat Kascus. The Isicarites began to bellow their disapproval. The Taliosian ordered his men to be silent. “You have come too far,” he hissed. “There is only one way for you to leave now,” Kascus concluded threateningly.
“Your dogs would yap more loudly were they perishing in the desert for want of water, Taliosian,” declared Sa-ank-met, lifting his eyes from the map. “I have told you, we need no more protection on this endeavor than my sorcery.”
“I am reminded that your magic did not keep you from the Sultan's dungeons,” stated Kascus curtly. “I shall place my faith in swords.” Sa-ank-met returned indignantly to his study of the parchment.
Grenulf looked at the hulking Isicarites of whom Kascus spoke. He studied the evil faces, the hook noses and brown skin, the straight black hair and the thin, cruel lips, the massive biceps and bulging chests. Then the Wehrlander's gaze fell upon a gaunt, aged figure cowering behind the others against the rear wall of the cell, striving to remain unnoticed.
“Better to trust in your Khemran's witchcraft,” laughed Grenulf deeply, “if you must fill your warrior's ranks with scarecrows such as this.” Grenulf pointed at the ancient against the wall, who raised his withered brown head and favored the mercenary with a frightened look. Grenulf laughed again. “I dare say that he is old enough to know every trick there is to fencing, though I should sleep soundly in the Ghoul King's court if this wight can wield, much less lift, a steel blade.”
“That,” said Kascus with a tone of mockery in his voice, “is Sa-ank-met's folly.” The Taliosian pushed through the Isicarite warriors and stood beside the withered old man. He dragged the ancient to his feet by the elder's long white beard.
“You look upon Azhid, once Muhrmet's chief scribe until he dared to omit a word from the Sultan's address to the ambassadors of the Marsian Emperor. He has rotted in these dungeons for ten years for that mistake and should have finished his days in darkness were my sorcerous friend not possessed of so very foolish a humor.” Kascus let go of the scribe's beard and smiled in the red face, daring Azhid to react to the abuse of the Taliosian. But scribes are not warriors. Azhid lowered his head in shame and, chuckling under his breath, Kascus stalked away.
“The scribe is learned in many tongues,” explained Sa-ank-met, lifting his eyes and looking at Grenulf. “His is the knowledge of many dead languages spoken by peoples old when the black pyramids of Khemran were young and sunken Draloth's peaks rose from forest instead of sea. Such knowledge may be as vital as a guide through the wastes of Sythia.”
Kascus laughed in the face of the wizard. “The ability to speak and read in a dead tongue as vital as the ability to find living water? Magic has rotted your brain, wizard, or do you suppose we shall trade riddles with the shades of those who built the Black Crypt ere we loot the innards of their labor?” The Khemran's eyes burned like smoldering embers, but the brown magician said nothing and returned his attention again to the map.
Grenulf watched the thief's mockery of the sorcery with a look of incredulity. The Taliosian was a fool, a bold reckless fool. Grenulf had dealt with wizards in the past, seen their magic transform heroes into cowards and kings into gibbering horrors neither human nor beast. Wizards were men to be feared and any dealings with them were as treacherous as the passes through the jagged Graf-na-Graf Mountains. Kascus's words of mockery were akin to throwing stones at a sleeping bear. The Wehrlander wondered when that bear would awaken to rend the thief's flesh. Already, an air of doom hung about the expedition.
Several hours passed, during which time Grenulf made himself as familiar as he might with the terrain which they would be called upon to cross, mentally placing water holes and passes upon the map as he studied it. It would be a hard journey; if even a single water hole had dried out they would perish in the baking sands of Sythia, for the jailer would not be able to secure more than a few bags to carry water according to Kascus. The threat that many an oasis had been occupied by slavers or bandits was a very real one as well. Still, better the near-certain death which Kascus's desperate venture offered than the certain doom which was Muhrmet's dungeons, Grenulf thought.
In the deep of the night the leather-clad Isicarite jailer reappeared at the cell door, his torch casting weird shadows upon the dank corridor walls behind him. From within the jailer's long black beard, a voice hissed at Kascus.
“It is time! Is the Wehrlander with us?” The Isicarite fingered his long curved dagger as he whispered the question. Kascus looked at the wiry blond freebooter and smiled smugly.
“Of course. Now, get us out of here.” The jailer opened the door and the inmates crept into the corridor in silence, a giant Isicarite dragging the scribe Azhid behind him. The jailer grasped Kascus's shoulder before the group had time to advance further down the corridor.
“We may run into some other guards,” the jailer stated, handing Kascus several knives to distribute among his men. Kascus smiled broadly as the jailer turned to lead them out of the dungeons. Striking like a serpent, Kascus's knife bit into the Isicarite's neck, the point of the blade erupting from the jailer's voice box as the Taliosian pushed the knife to its hilt into the brown flesh. The jailer fell, trembling upon the ground as his throat filled with blood.
Before the body had ceased trembling, Kascus was above it, removing the jailer's sword and armor. Grenulf was reminded of the ancient proverb, 'There is no honor among thieves.' Now the mercenary bore witness to the truth which had kept the saying upon the tongues of men long after its first speakers were dust.
It stood half buried in the yellow sands, its black surface pitted and weathered by the centuries. Like a gaping maw, an opening yawned at the men who stood before the megalithic structure, challenging them to violate the crypt's eon-old serenity. High above the diamond-shaped structure, the desert sun beat down upon the earth with unrelenting fury.
Grenulf looked at the lost tomb, an uneasiness crawling along his spine as he did so. The blond mercenary had journeyed across the trackless wastes of Sythia to find this place. He had fought slavers while half-dead with thirst and armed with no more blade than the knife given to him by Kascus. Grenulf fingered the sickle-shaped sword in his bronze hands and reflected how much better such a blade made him feel. A gift from a slaver, Grenulf's knife protruding from the bandit's shoulders. A fair exchange, Grenulf mused with the grim humor of a Wehrlander, but perhaps the mercenary had taken advantage of the slaver's generosity. Grenulf fingered the small golden fetish hanging from a silver chain about his neck, even as it had adorned the silk clad desert hawk before him. The fetish was some ancient goddess, or perhaps long forgotten elf queen. An impotent deity, in any event, Grenulf decided, since the slaver's devotion had certainly not spared him the impaling thrust of the freebooter's blade. Or perhaps, like Grenulf, the slaver had merely kept the ornament because of its material value.
Grenulf returned from his musings and looked again at the tomb. His flesh crawled with a nameless dread. Surly no human hands had reared this megalithic horror. No man's mind, however mad or foreign, had ever conceived such angles and cast them in black volcanic rock. The Wehrlander's face grimaced as he thought of what strange creatures had built this diamond-shaped abomination, this alien horror which was clearly aped in the pyramids of Khemran. Grenulf's eyes turned to the ancient scribe Azhid who, under the watchful eye of Sa-ank-met, was copying the characters chiseled into the stone above the crypt's door. When he had finished, Azhid would translate the inscription for the sorcerer. Grenulf silently gave thanks to the gods that he was unable to derive meaning from such a script as the crawling hieroglyphics written upon the tomb.
Azhid finished writing and stared long at the words which he had written. Finally, in a subdued whisper, he spoke to Sa-ank-met. The Khemran's face split in a crafty smile and he turned to Kascus and the Isicarites who lay upon the sand impatiently waiting for the scribe and sorcerer to finish their examination of the doorway. There were but ten Isicarites now, the others having fallen to thirst, sun and slavers while far from the tomb. What remained was an unsavory rabble of rippling muscles, cruel eyes, and greedy hearts. Now armed with blades and armor wrested from the slavers and bandits they had battled upon the long road from Isicar, the criminals were fast forgetting their debt of gratitude and Kascus was increasingly hard pressed to keep them in line. Only their fear of Sa-ank-met's magic had kept them from deserting thus far and Grenulf considered it more than likely that even the Khemran's magic could not force them to abide by the shares agreed to months past in the dungeons of the Sultan.
“Know Ye the face of Seegora-seti, last Emperor of the Black Kingdom. From death comes life, from life – oblivion. Crowns may rust but thrones remain.” Sa-ank-met quoted the inscription above the door in his dry rasping voice. The words made Grenulf even more uneasy. No king of men would have such an epithet, betokening neither a chronicle of his glories nor an anathema-ridden curse upon defilers of his grave. And yet, the Wehrlander felt that there was indeed a curse here, hidden by some mocking subtlety of the crypt's builders.
“An emperor!” exclaimed Kascus, rising from the sands. He turned to the Isicarites, many of whom had followed the thief's action and leaped to their feet. “An emperor!” the Taliosian continued to laugh. “Thrice the fortune of any king! That is what should be buried with any emperor worthy of the name!” The Isicarites mumbled excitedly among themselves while Sa-ank-met continued to watch them, still wearing a cat-like smile.
Torches were lit and the men began to enter the yawning opening and descend the short, narrow steps beyond. The Isicarites at the head of the column of thieves stumbled upon the strange stairway, clutching the walls to steady themselves. How strange were these stairs, thought Grenulf as he carefully descended behind Kascus and the Isicarites. It was certain that they were not built for any human foot.
The walls of the stairway were crafted of regular blocks of the same black stone as the exterior of the tomb. The flickering light from the torches revealed that there were pictures and writing chiseled into the walls but, after a moment's glance at the ophidian shapes and slithering script, all turned their heads from studying the walls, all save Azhid whom the Khemran forced to look upon certain inscriptions which the wizard found aroused his interest.
The narrow corridor descended for hundreds of feet into the darkness beneath the desert. Far above them, Grenulf felt sure, the sun was setting, the moon was rising, and the unholy powers of evil were awakening to revel in the night. He had seen naked savages in the steaming jungles of Koth pray before gargoyle idols and marveled as wooden lips moved in response. He had seen a wizened orc shaman in the ash wastes of Visidal pull off his skin as though it were a simple robe to race across the wastes upon four lupine feet. He had seen many sights which would haunt a less stalwart heart to the grave yet never before had Grenulf experienced the sort of terror which now plagued him. It was not the darkness, nor the horrible sensation of being buried alive which was beginning to cause the Isicarites to slacken their pace and look longingly over their shoulders, nor was it the faint reptilian stench which clung about the black depths like an atmosphere of evil. No, Grenulf could not say what had caused him to mumble silent prayers to unnamed gods and it was that which caused him all the more terror.
So rapid were the series of events that they could have been no swifter had they been but a single action. The warrior at the very fore of the group turned to call back to Kascus. As the silk-clad man turned, his torch held aloft, a pale shape leaped from the darkness behind him, the gleam of metal in the shape's … hand? The Isicarite shrieked once. The small, pale thing upon his back. A suggestion of liquid darkness flowing from the man's neck as his torch fell and the horrible scene was devoured by the shadows.
Upon the stair, not a soul moved. Though there were yet a half-dozen torches among them, none of the Isicarites would advance and learn what manner of nameless death had claimed their countryman. The eyes of the criminals were round with fear as they attempted to penetrate the absolute blackness below them with their gaze. Kascus slowly crept through the ranks of the terrified men and removed himself from the forefront of the column. Preferring to battle a physical foe, be it devil or man, to the horror now filling him, Grenulf handed his torch to the retreating Taliosian and descended the steps.
Such was Grenulf. He was not a man possessed of superhuman courage, for fear struck him just as any man. But Grenulf was one who would not yield to his terror, but would rise against it and destroy it. The Isicarites might flee, but Grenulf would confront the horror upon the stair. If it could die, the mercenary would kill it, if it could not, it would be Grenulf who would die, but the Wehrlander would not flee.
Grenulf did not advance far beyond the reach of the torchlight before his veteran eyes spotted the white shape which leaped at him from a crouch several steps below. Grenulf held his sword before him with both hands and steadied himself as the hurtling form hit his body, impaled upon the blade by its own momentum. Grenulf looked at the pale shape, indistinct in the darkness. It was like a gaunt white baboon, though horribly dissimilar. A reptilian musk filled his lungs and Grenulf shuddered in loathing as he sought to push the cold, scaly thing from off his sword. As the mercenary half-turned to accomplish this, he was struck to the side and knocked off his feet.
His attacker's momentum carried Grenulf back into the ring of illumination cast by the torches of his fellow tomb robbers. The blond mercenary craned his neck to gaze upon the horror which raked his chest with long sharp claws. What he saw nearly caused the freebooter to cry out in terror.
It stood perhaps three-feet tall and was built in a debased, primitive, yet hideously human manner. It had two legs, two arms and a neck upon which the head was situated. Its body was covered in scales, however, pale white scales. The head was that of a monstrous serpent with a massive fanged mouth and malformed eyes which were as pale as the abomination's scaly hide. A purple tongue, the only part of the monster's body to betray any trace of color, flitted in and out from between its jaws. A long thin tail curled about Grenulf's leg while the snake-creature's legs straddled his abdomen. Long nails upon things hideously similar to hands tore ribbons of flesh from Grenulf's chest.
With a burst of strength born of loathing, the mercenary seized the snake-creature's frail arms and bent them back upon themselves with a loud snap. The monster wriggled in pain and unwound itself from Grenulf's body. But the Wehrlander's bloodlust had been aroused and, seizing the snake-creature, he lifted it over his blond head. Grenulf broke its back, hurling the quivering, dying mass of colorless reptilian flesh at the very feet of the wide-eyed Isicarites.
“These are no devils but vermin to be crushed beneath a woman's heel!” declared Grenulf angrily, appropriating a sword from one of the thieves to replace the one which lie below with a reptilian body impaled upon its blade.
Sa-ank-met pushed his way to the fore, his eyes alight with a fever of excitement. He knelt beside the dying creature and gazed into its sightless eyes. He touched the wedge-shaped head with a thin brown hand and drew his fingers down the white scaly hide. The monster attempted to rise, then fell and lay still forever.
Kascus, flanked by the largest of the Isicarites, cautiously proceeded further down the black stairs, passing the corpse of the first thing slain by Grenulf. Seven steps lower they came upon the extinguished torch and a great pool of blood. Of the Isicarite who had been attacked there was no sign. Kascus looked back at the remainder of the fellowship of rogues.
“Something has taken his body,” the thief declared in a horrified whisper. Grenulf cursed under his breath. He had bolstered the Isicarites' courage by insulting their pride. Now, Kascus would undo what the mercenary had done by showing his own fear.
The Isicarites spoke among themselves for several minutes and then began to ascend the stairs, Kascus in their midst. The lure of an emperor's hoard was not enough to make them brave the black halls further. As they began to retreat, the leading Isicarite stopped. Blocking his path up the stairs like a demonic steward of the Pit loomed the Khemran Sa-ank-met. The wizard's cat-like eyes met those of the thieves.
“Back, scum, back into the depths until I have found what I seek.” The wizard pointed imperiously with a claw-like finger at the lower darkness. But, though they still feared the Khemran, the thieves' fear of the darkness and the horror within was greater.
“You'll not stand in our way,” declared the lead Isicarite, pulling a jeweled dagger from a makeshift cloth scabbard. “I'll die beneath the sun, where the birds shall eat my flesh, not in the earth like a worm.”
The sorcerer's eyes burned with an inner fire. Sa-ank-met slowly repeated the thief's words. “You… will… die!” The Isicarite screamed once, the shriek echoing through the grim benighted halls, accompanied by the clatter of metal as the dropped dagger toppled down the stairs. The Isicarite's corpse fell at Sa-ank-met's feet, neither wound nor mark upon his body yet neither warmth nor life within it.
“You will depart when I have no further need of you and not before,” snarled the wizard. Sullenly, the Isicarites turned about and descended past the reptilian bodies and beyond the bloody marker of their comrade's fate. Grenulf studied the Khemran's cruel, commanding gaze for a moment before following the thieves in their descent. Bloodthirsty goblins were not his only concern, the Wehrlander decided.
At last the stairs gave way to a flat-level corridor and Grenulf could almost feel the sense of relief which possessed his companions, as they became aware that they should descend no deeper beneath the desert sands.
Sa-ank-met's voice boomed through the dark halls and the company turned to behold the Khemran's right hand held before him and above his head, the fingers spread outwards as though grasping an invisible sphere. Slowly, an orb of pale blue light materialized between the clawed brown fingers. The orb continued to grow in size and brilliancy until it entirely filled the sorcerer's hand and bathed a large section of the corridor in light. Grenulf caught Kascus's frightened voice muttering, “To think I mocked his magic!”
Grenulf looked upon the hall whose darkness had so recently been dispelled and repressed a shudder as a cold chill came upon him. The wizard's orb seemed to illuminate several hundred feet of the black masonry and still the far end of the hall was yet hidden within shadow. The walls were covered in hideous writings which seemed to crawl across the stone. Interposed between the abominable characters were even more vile paintings depicting elves and men battling foul serpent-headed beings with the inhuman monsters always having the upper hand. At regular intervals, diamond-shaped doorways gaped like the mouths of great vipers, above each opening a golden plaque inscribed with more of the crawling glyphs.
Sa-ank-met gave the scribe Azhid a savage kick and motioned with a sidewise jerk of head and neck for the scribe to translate what was written above the nearest door. The scribe moved forward with a nervous look at the darkness beyond the door and an even more frightened look back at the waiting sorcerer.
“Ssladiss-ar, magi of bones,” the scribe announced in a hoarse, fear-choked voice as he bowed low to Sa-ank-met. The Khemran laughed and moved to Azhid's side.
“A necromancer! As good a place as any begin our pillaging of this place.” Sa-ank-met stepped aside, pointing into the tomb. Nervously, all obeyed the Khemran's command.
The crypt beyond the doorway was massive, with walls crafted of enormous black stones, every inch covered with crawling script and ophidian-headed pictoglyphs. A chill went down each man's spine as his eyes fell upon the horror which rested in the center of the chamber – an immense sarcophagus of black stone, its lid carved in a horrible figure blending the qualities of man and viper in obscene and maddening fashion. Sa-ank-met raced to the sarcophagus, dragging the protesting Azhid behind him.
But the sarcophagus with its monstrous lid was not the only denizen of the crypt. Everywhere golden objects rose from the floor, glittering weirdly in the blue witch-light. Piled gems sparkled from silver caskets; a sapphire-eyed serpent loomed above a gold-bricked pyramid. Swords and weapons of curious shape and craft lie atop jeweled urns and crystal jars. As one, the men forgot their terror and fell upon the gleaming hoard like famished wolves. Let the sorcerer examine nightmares, they would capture dreams.
Grenulf watched the greedy ecstasy of the Isicarites as they squabbled over the golden necklaces and silver armbands. The Wehrlander did not allow his greed to overcome the warning which his senses impressed upon him, despite the wealth's temptations. His eyes held the figures of Sa-ank-met and the scribe as they pushed the heavy lid from the sarcophagus, sending it to the floor with a thundering crash. Grenulf winced as he listened to the roar echo through the black halls beyond the chamber, contemplating the dark slumbers which might be thusly broken. Sa-ank-met's face grew pale as the wizard beheld the inmate of the stone sepulcher while the ancient scribe at his side shrieked and fled to a corner of the crypt, cowering and whimpering like a frightened child. The wizard set his pale face into a mask of determination and reached into the sarcophagus with both hands. At last, his will broke and Sa-ank-met looked away, his hands yet within the grave. Presently, he drew forth a heavy metal object, an object which appeared to Grenulf to resemble nothing so much as a large book with pages of iron. The wizard looked at his prize and the unholy light returned to his dark eyes and the pallor left his skin. His face broke into a ghastly smile and the Khemran strode with purpose to where his slave lay cowering.
Indeed, what the Khemran had claimed was a book, Grenulf decided, as Sa-ank-met struck the terrified scribe time and again about the face until the ancient ceased his protestations and, like a broken thing, bent over the iron paged tome. Sa-ank-met laughed as he read the words Azhid put upon parchment for his master.
Suddenly, a cry went up from behind the mercenary. Spinning about with the speed of a surprised wolf, Grenulf saw the doorway of the crypt swarming with pale, scaly dwarfish shapes. An Isicarite who had decided to lay the wealth he claimed as his own beside the doorway lay dead, his life's blood pooling about the gold and silver of his life's dream, seven white, degenerate beings hacking at his unmoving body with copper blades and bestial frenzy.
Grenulf shouted warning to the others, lost in their greed, as he removed the head from the first of the monsters that closed upon him. The Wehrlander's stomach grew sick as he watched the headless body flop and writhe in a fashion horribly familiar and reptilian.
Then they were upon him, an unblinking horde of hissing madness. They slashed at him with copper swords and clawed at him with taloned fingers. Grenulf's sword lashed out again and again like the very finger of Death, each blow crushing bone or hewing limbs, each thrust leaving another of the snake-creatures flopping upon the bloody floor, maimed or dying. Yet still they came, like an endless wave of horror. His body cut by dozens of superficial wounds, Grenulf decided that here he would die, drowned in the thin blood of these reptilian goblins, for their numbers grew despite the heap of bodies about the Wehrlander's feet.
Then Sa-ank-met's voice rose above the clash of swords and the cries of the dying. One of the serpent-beasts closing with Grenulf shrieked in a voice which was unsettlingly kindred to humanity and its body went rigid. While still parrying the blows of his other antagonists, Grenulf watched as the creature's body shriveled and blackened like a toad beneath the desert sun. Grenulf could hear the wizard laughing as the withered husk fell to the floor.
Still the monsters came on and Grenulf found himself being pressed backwards, trying desperately to keep the goblins from flanking him and striking his back. Slowly, his sword now an unbearable weight in his hands, Grenulf fell back, each step bringing with it another copper blade that bit into his skin.
Again Sa-ank-met's voice rose above the din of battle. A purple orb spiraled about the crypt, an orb of cold, evil light. The ghostly apparition danced about, striking the serpents whenever it drew near them, each time leaving behind it a still corpse. Over and over the orb struck a reptilian beast, wringing from the dying creature a human sounding scream of agony until at least a dozen of the creatures had so perished and the orb's once brilliant purple light was feeble and faded.
But it had served its purpose. The wizard's assault had broken the berserk courage of the creatures and the remains of their horde broke and fled the crypt, heedless of their dead and dying.
Grenulf sank to the floor, breathing heavily. Here had been fought such a battle as no legend or myth dared to evoke. The floor lay heaped with reptilian bodies, their thin, pale blood mingling in a veritable lake upon the stones. Yet, the battle had not been without its price. Of their number, only Grenulf, Kascus, the wizard, Azhid and one of the Isicarites remained.
The Taliosian and the remaining Isicarite, a hulking brute named Kormaz, were watching one of the snake-creatures which had not fled with its comrades. The monster was striking at a fallen torch, hacking at the flame with its copper sword. Grenulf looked at the hacked and mutilated bodies of the fallen Isicarites and understood. The creatures were blind, born into a world of eternal darkness. Blind, yet they could sense heat and warmth, sense it and strike at it, attacking dead flesh time and again until all warmth had bled from the corpse.
Kascus slunk up to the reptilian dwarf, stabbing the point of his blade deep into the creature's back. The viper-headed horror sank wearily to the ground, its thin blood bubbling between its scaly lips. Kascus stooped and wiped his blade of the beast's ichor.
“We should thank these beasts,” the thief laughed. “They have made us much wealthier than we should have been without them.” The Taliosian looked at each of the mutilated corpses in turn.
“I wonder if you will view them with such affection when they return?” Grenulf stated in a voice as cold as steel. Kascus paled at the suggestion and then smiled once more.
“Our wizard shall make short work of them, Wehrlander!” Kascus boasted. Grenulf followed his gaze to where the Khemran stood. As though nothing had happened, as though there had been no battle and most of their company slain, Sa-ank-met once more stooped over the shoulder of the scribe as the man slowly translated the iron-paged grimoire.
“We should not tarry here,” stated Grenulf, addressing his words to the sorcerer. “We should take what we can carry and flee these cursed halls before the scaly demons return.”
Sa-ank-met raised his eyes to meet the freebooter's. “You are too few to leave these vaults alive without my magic to protect you and I am not yet ready to leave this place. There are yet secrets I would learn, knowledge I would steal from the dead of this place.”
Grenulf looked in the icy fire of the wizard's eyes and realized that it would be hopeless to challenge his decision. To brave the long stairway in total darkness and with only three blades would be certain death. They were once again prisoners, slaves to the will of Sa-ank-met.
“Strip the dead of their garments and make of them a fire in the doorway. These creatures are little removed from beasts and will not brave the flame.” With these words, Sa-ank-met dismissed his companions and returned to his studies.
As they busied about removing the torn and bloody clothing, Grenulf spoke to his fellow prisoners.
“We must rest and regain our strength. It may be that some opportunity may present itself to escape both the wizard's madness and the blades of the goblins,” the mercenary whispered.
“Yes, to remain with him is to march into the mouth of Hell,” Kascus returned, cutting a bloodied sash from the corpse at his feet. “Kormaz, you will stand the first watch while I and the Wehrlander sleep. Wake me when you feel fatigued and I shall relieve you.” The hulking Isicarite nodded in agreement as he put to flame the pile of garments he had placed in the crypt's doorway.
“And Kormaz,” Kascus added, “be as watchful of danger from within as without.”
Grenulf awoke with a start, sword in hand. The beady, rodent-like eyes of the Taliosian thief Kascus peered into his own. The thief pointed to a still form lying beside a pile of long cold ashes. Grenulf crawled to where the body lay, turning it over to behold the patch of blackened flesh upon the back of the Isicarite's neck, the exact mirror of the wound left behind by the purple death the wizard had employed to break the snake-creatures' attack. Grenulf felt Kascus grip his arm, the thief's body rigid with fear.
“Look,” he gasped; pointing to where Sa-ank-met and the scribe Azhid continued to translate the ancient spell book. A torch had been secured to the floor, throwing the figures' shadows upon the wall behind them. Grenulf's mouth dropped in horror at the terrible nature of one of the shadows.
For where the shapes of two men should be there was but one, the other belonging to no such man as had ever trod the earth. It was a gaunt shadow with a massive head and the outlines of that head were those of a reptile.
Kascus drew his sword and crept forward, his eyes fixed upon the bent form of Sa-ank-met. Grenulf watched the thief slink forward, watched him creep unnoticed to the Khemran's side and raise his blade. As the thief prepared to deliver the death blow, Grenulf gazed beyond the men and to the wall beyond them.
“Hold!” the mercenary cried, but already Kascus's sword licked out and the wizard's head fell upon the iron-paged book before him while his lifeless body struck the wall behind. The viper-headed shadow turned to face the only remaining human shade upon the wall.
Kascus looked at the scribe, Azhid, and the thief's sword fell upon the bloody floor with a cold metallic clatter. The scribe walked toward the Taliosian, the ancient form rising and becoming taller than ever it had been, even before age had made it bent and crooked. The old man's withered limbs grew leaner even as the muscles that lent them movement bulged with a new strength beneath the scribe's tattered robe. For a moment, Grenulf had the impression of inhuman, serpentine eyes gazing from the orbits of Azhid's face before that face was banished forever.
No more was the Isicarite scribe, Azhid. In his place stood a tall, lean creature, an inhuman evil from elder times. The hands which protruded from the folds of the tattered robe were covered by a black reptilian hide, red mottling like flecks of blood breaking up the snakeskin's darkness. The angular, wedge-shaped head of a serpent oscillated from side to side as its cold yellow eyes held those of the petrified thief, Kascus.
With an unsettling stride as much slithering as stepping, the cobra-headed monster casually glided behind the Taliosian. Then, with a sudden burst of violence, the head reared backwards as folds of skin in the neck expanded. For an instant, Grenulf had the impression of two gigantic eyes hovering in the darkness to either side of the open-mouthed snake-man. Then the cobra-like hood closed again and the viper's head struck the neck of the thief. Despite the darkness of the crypt and the distance separating him from the grim tableau, Grenulf could see the Taliosian's veins showing green beneath his swarthy skin as the serpent-man's venom was pumped into the thief's body.
The serpent-man let the dead body fall to the floor and slithered toward Grenulf. The mercenary held his sword before him, attempting to keep the blade between himself and the viper while averting its hypnotic gaze.
“Long has my soul rotted in limbo awaiting your coming,” the words escaped the scaly lips in a rasping voice in which was contained the utterings of jungle serpents. “Long have I waited for one who would call my soul back from the black ages to inhabit a new body in a new time.”
Grenulf continued to face forward with his eyes downcast as the serpent-man moved slowly about the crypt. The creature's slow, echoing steps suddenly grew into a rapid frenzy as it attempted to strike the Wehrlander's side. The warrior's blade flashed out and the monster barely arrested its assault in time to avoid the sword's deadly sting.
“Where your kind now rules, my people built towers and monoliths that touched moon and sun. We reached heights of science and sorcery which your kind shall never excel.” Mockingly, the serpent-man feinted a renewed charge at Grenulf's flank.
“We advanced too far and grew too content with our lives. Our ancient enemies had devastated one another in the Dragon War, and we had no cause for fear. We did not heed that apes that dwelt in jungle and mountain. We were unconcerned when the apes discovered flame and forged weapons of copper and iron. We did not recognize the lingering influence of our old foes. We did not understand our peril until our cities burned and our people died before waves of naked savages from jungle and mountain.”
Again the viper-headed creature struck at Grenulf. Grenulf's sword lashed out once more and the serpent-man retreated, its left hand gory and bleeding. The creature held the wound before its face, a blue, forked tongue licking at the blackish liquid. Then it muttered words in a language of hisses and the wound closed upon itself.
“But we did not pass,” the monster continued in its grim, rasping voice. “We were masters of magic and illusion. We clothed ourselves in the guise of the barbarian creatures and walked among them unguessed. We were advisors to kings and priests, planning how the kingdoms of men might prosper, all the while planting the seeds for their destruction. In time, we grew bolder still and set the crown of the Khemran Pharaoh on the brow of one of our disguised kin.
“But then our ancient foes again showed their hand. A handful of elves, who did not pass from the world with the rest of their kind, calling themselves 'Sentinels', discovered our secret empire in the shadow of man. They dispelled our illusions, revealed us to the kingdoms of men, driving our slaves into revolt. In a short time, we were driven into the desolate realms forsaken by man. Here my subjects erected this, the last great burial vault of the serpent folk. As my life passed, I was entombed. My servants took poison and joined me in the netherworld to which our eternal souls fled. The least of our people, the guards and laborers, were left behind to fare as they might. Those pale beasts which now infest these tunnels are their degenerate descendants.
“The souls of my kind are eternal and we left means by which they might again become housed in flesh. When the wizard came here seeking after our secrets, the slave he employed to translate our language stumbled upon words of power which would allow one of our number to take over his body and drive his brute soul from it. I, Seegora-seti, last Emperor of the Black Kingdom fought the souls of my subjects and my ancestors, but mine was the most powerful and cunning and it was my soul which crossed the threshold.”
Seegora-seti lunged forward, the serpent-man's cobra-like fangs bared. Grenulf spun around, his sword's blade tearing through the monster's side, spilling black blood across the floor. The serpent-man retreated, healing the mortal wound as he had the cut upon his hand.
“Damn you, spawn of apes! Were it not for that accursed medallion you wear about your throat I would send your soul shrieking into the pits of Tarterus with my magic and feed your bones to the vermin of this place. But there are gods and powers opposed to my own and they protect you from my might!” Seegora-seti clutched at the wound in its side and closed its eyes in a spasm of pain. Grenulf strode nearer the monster, looking it in the face when the reptilian orbs abruptly opened once more, nearly catching the mercenary's own in their hypnotic gaze. Seegora-seti glared at the defiant Wehrlander.
“Enough!” the serpent-man roared. “Let savage smite savage!” Grenulf spun about as the reptilian horde burst into the chamber, responding to the summons of their ancestors' dread liege. The dwarfish creatures swarmed forward, copper blades gleaming dully in the dim torchlight. Grenulf looked upon the hissing host as they crept forward, their forked tongues flicking in and out of their scaly mouths, their blind eyes staring into the unbroken darkness about them.
As the first of the reptilian goblins closed with Grenulf, the warrior spun about, turning his back upon the sea of fangs and swords. With a powerful heave of his muscular arm, the freebooter threw his sword across the crypt. The point of the blade struck the gloating Seegora-seti between the eyes, sinking through the soft ophidian bone, transfixing the serpent-man's skull. One of the monster's black-scaled arms rose feebly to its head and trembled beside the hilt of the sword for a moment. The likeness of the serpent-man fled the body and the corpse of the Isicarite scribe Azhid toppled to the floor like a withered flower.
Their leader, their god slain, the snake creatures let up a great cry of terror, a sound Grenulf could liken only to the frightened chirp of a desert lizard and fled back the way they had come, retreating back into the black depths of the crypt.
Grenulf pulled his blade from the head of the fallen scribe and sheathed the sword at his side. The Wehrlander looked at the bloated, poison-filled body of Kascus and the beheaded wreckage of Sa-ank-met and smiled grimly.
Filling his pockets with what gold he could carry, Grenulf quickly fled the chamber; anxious to leave behind him the dark, ancient world he had briefly glimpsed.