by Jeffery Scott Sims
The two wandering mages, having descended the anonymous, scrubby ravine with its little trickling brook, scaled a large flat rock which afforded them a vista of the terrain ahead. From this point they gained a peek into their destination, where the close slopes of the ravine receded and the stream reached its confluence with the river at the bottom of the grim, barren canyon. They paused on their perch, slipping their heavy packs from their shoulders, fanning themselves against the merciless dry heat of the unclouded, late morning sun.
Said the one, lean, wiry, and gray-bearded, with a wrap about his perspiring bald head, “Thither way, good Morca, lies our journey,” indicating to the right with his staff. The other, much younger, tall, powerfully muscled, with the face of a hawk and fierce eyes beneath his steel helmet, grunted, sipped water from his leathern pouch, replied, “So it be, honorable Nantrech, and fine marching, maybe, if the company of an old man clip not my stride.” That companion snorted. Said he, “I was ever the greater traveler than thou. As I have explored the farthest north and west, now seek I the wonders of the burning south. Keep up as you may. I will not tarry for thee.”
Morca laughed. Despite their banter they were friends long and true. Wizards they were, yet men of high birth, for these were nobles of Dyrezan, that glorious city governed by magic that governed much else of the world, and they were men accustomed to the best in life. Back home households of slaves served them in their great manors, and liegemen trembled at their command. They came to this forsaken place not because they were itinerant, but because they were on a pilgrimage, instigated by Lord Nantrech, to uncover secrets of the arcane rumored to lie in those parts. Nantrech, the studious scholar and renowned sorcerer, divided his time between his books and such exotic journeys. Lord Morca was of a different breed, a man of action whose travels consisted mainly of exploits of conquest in the service of the empire; but a wonderful magician was he too, and the first whom Nantrech had thought to ask on this adventure. Morca carried his staff with him as a wizard will, along with esoteric materials for waging magic, only he wore a sword at his belt as well, never choosing at home or abroad to be far from it.
Nantrech shortly rose, stretched his back, said, “Let us go on. The mysteries concealed within the gorge of Pentono wait for us, if the blind man spoke truly.” So they climbed down off the rock and walked down the rest of the ravine to the river, a broad, shallow watercourse in the main, with a great deep, emerald pool promising coolness just round the bend. Down there lay also revealed a rich ribbon of fecundity paralleling the river, stands of big, leafy trees offering delightful shade. There they paused again, this time to eat, under a spreading sycamore with their feet dipped in the pool. Presently Morca remarked, as to himself, “If the blind man spoke truly.”
Yes, the blind man; they met him in Voltemar, a dismal trading station, the last outpost before the vast southern desert, in the market place they found him, as report in the previous town to the north told them he would be. The blind seer, folks called him, and whispers of his sightless vision had reached even unto Dyrezan, and for this– just this– had Lord Nantrech gone forth, with Lord Morca in tow, that they might investigate. Who was he really? What did he know? What could they learn from him? A skinny ancient one, hairless, clothed only in loincloth, he squatted in the bazaar, ignored by the raucous tradesmen, shunned by most others, forlorn, staring at nothing. Then Nantrech accosted him, asked with condescending politeness if he be he, and what would he tell them, and for how much. The blind man rasped a price (a ludicrously steep price, involving more than gold), which after muted but warm consultation among the mages was paid, and then quoth the blind man, without any preamble:
“To the south and east, O great ones of Dyrezan, seek the gorge of Pentono, a harsh and forbidding realm off the routes of the caravans, a land forgotten by your world, yet once the center of a kingdom mighty as your own. Its kings and their palaces have vanished down the dusty hole of history, but in an elder time they spun crystalline webs of magical power of such magnitude that the very heavens rocked and swayed at their beck. Know you clever mages of Dyrezan that the repeated and over use of the higher powers leave traces that surely fade with the eons, without ever entirely dying. The influences of old linger still. Seek them, and benefit as you will.”
Morca was not impressed by this delivery of goods purchased, saying aloud and gruffly that a full refund was in order. The blind man raised his head to stare into Morca’s blue eyes with his pale, fishy ones, responding simply, “I have given honestly. Steal from me what is mine to give, and before the moon rises tonight the sand snakes will devour you.” Lord Nantrech granted that the deal was fair, and remonstrating with his companion they took their leave to follow up the murky clues provided by their curious informant. Lord Morca remained unconvinced, until the evening brought with it a disquieting rustling and slithering about their lodgings, these dubious noises lending a strength to the blind man’s words that minimized further debate.
That was three days ago. Those days of travel through dreadful, uninhabited countryside had taken them to an oasis shielded by a cleft in the rocks where badgers played among unique ferns, and the tiny rivulet which welled up from those rocks flowed gently downhill into that gorge of Pentono. Here they had arrived, and a remarkable place they found, by its very existence amidst such natural inhospitality intriguing. In addition to the inviting scenery, they spied on the cliff above the pool a series of badly weathered inscriptions, odd geometrical designs and pictographs of animals unknown or foreign to the region. Morca acknowledged, “Someone once was here, of a bygone age. Those markings were old when Dyrezan was young.”
Replied Nantrech, “Let us see more. The river flows to the south. That is our path.” So they set out on their trek into the depths of the canyon, their sandals sinking into sandy beach and loamy woodland soil, when they chose not to merely splash their way through the shallow water. The steep walls rose up about them, impervious barriers to movement save by the river. Swallows darted about the cliff faces, lizards among the rocks underfoot. Winged insects hummed annoyingly close. As afternoon progressed so did they, but more slowly, for the surface changed. Now they trudged among jumbles of rocks; stones, cobbles, boulders presented increasingly uncertain footing, then considerable obstacles. The river narrowed, deepened, gushed over low falls, filled up clear pools thronging with minnows and unusually large tadpoles. The magic staffs of the travelers came in handy for maintaining balance within the stony chaos. Late that day, with the shadows from the western wall kissing the eastern, they entered a broader expanse at last with better footing, solid earth raised above the flood plain of the river, with more trees and wide flat areas that resembled untilled fields. A large secondary canyon opened into the main gorge from the left, the sheer cliff veering away to the east. On a level granite shelf they made camp. Morca replenished their water from the river. Nantrech stoked a fire, boiled a portion of the dried meat procured in Voltemar. “Soon we eat fish and frogs,” said he, “unless snare us thou a bird.”
Replied Lord Morca, “That I will.” Presently he said, “Something, wise one, nags my eye. Did you notice, amidst your heavy labors, the irregularities ahead in this southward facing cliff? They reek of the artificial.”
Lord Nantrech stared down the canyon wall, squinting. With mock surliness he said, “Confess I that shadows darken my eyes more than thine. Truly I see them now. Cavities of a kind, I call them. I honor thee with the task.” Morca stepped away, from a distance called to his companion. Nantrech lazily joined him, though his attitude brightened when he more closely scrutinized the place. “Indeed, doorways carved into naked rock, crude yet impressive. I give us light.” Nantrech extracted from a pouch a hollow glass ball, breathed onto it, rubbed it with his dry fingers and muttered a charm. The ball glowed evenly, as if it encompassed a frozen flicker of torch. “What lies in this chamber? Dust and dirt, I make it, but what of the others? The openings are regularly spaced. Naught here, but I detect bare footprints in this dust. Those are not relics of the past. Ah, Morca, look here in this one: an alcove barred by placed stones, and inside a heap of threshed grain. These others are, I assume, edible roots. We intrude on a preserve.”
“We have company, Nantrech, most likely nearby, and our camp is indefensible.” They departed that little cave, pondered in the deepening gloom. Morca mused, “I see there a slanting pit against the wall fronting another room. If it be empty, let us hole up in there for the night. We can hold that entrance against all comers.” It was vacant, they did relocate, and there they slept, Nantrech easily, his fellow wizard in snatches, instinctively wary.
And with the morning they did receive visitors. Morca shook Nantrech awake to the sound of furtive mutterings above. The latter reached into his bag of arcane tricks, the former drew his sword. They went forth boldly, being unaccustomed to fear, looked up the slope of the pit to find a band of natives waiting for them. A half dozen there were, of medium height and quite thin, swarthy, rather akin to the people of the great desert. They clutched spears but made no hostile move.
Nantrech, the master of languages, attempted only two before he hit upon one that served. “As he explained, “They speak a variant of the common desert dialect, though less ornate. Thus far, there is no threat in their speech.” He and Morca withdrew momentarily into the chamber, where he gifted the other via the spell of tongues the rudiments of this language. Then they came out in earnest, confronted the party. The natives backed away at sight of Morca’s sword, which he held in professional stance. Nantrech said, “We come in peace, craving nothing of yours, nor desiring to infringe your freedom. We seek the secrets of lost ages hidden within Pentono.”
The dark folk replied, “You seek that of the Old Ones? They are gone away. Nothing remains of them but wreckage and stories for children.”
Morca said, “We have our methods. We want their knowledge, not your treasure. Your tubers are safe from us, and your women too, if you molest us not. Tell me, where must we go?”
“You are almost there. It is the old city, beyond the village. Our youth steal stones from there, at the dare. There is nothing more.”
“We shall see. New found friends, I beseech you to lead us.” Following a whispered council they did. The men of Dyrezan, having gathered their belongings, discovered that the village, such as it was, lay in all its wattle and thatch glory just around a sharp curve in the canyon wall, a miserable collection of hovels that housed maybe three or four score dwellers. They were numerous enough to make trouble if they chose, but any such desires seemed held in abeyance for the moment. The visitors were escorted to an elder, the chief, who asked them into his unusually spacious two-room hut. Young women waited on his guests while they talked.
This the elder told them: “We will not be afraid of you, for we have little to steal, and by your looks I know you set your sights higher than we. We wondered, you understand, because few strangers come to puzzle us. That you do. What is there left of the Old Ones to inspire avarice?
“You are at the edge of their domain. Long ago many people lived there…” He struggled with a term (said Nantrech to Morca, “Literally ‘hundreds’, but he means an incomprehensible number.”), shrugged helplessly, added, “More than in all the world now. They were great, they were mighty, they are dead now, or gone. There are many stories.
“What they left behind them lies to the south a short walk. My people normally stay away. There are too many dreams there. You can find it yourself easily. Scarcely a stone’s throw from our village you find the first signs. They go a long way. Seek it if it suits you. Other than the dreams I warn of no peril, for I know none. Act with caution, if that accords with your plans.”
The wizards thanked him for his sparse information, genuinely appreciating the directions, and before the sun touched the village they had left it, with bland local food donated for their packs, and in due time did approach interesting developments. No one followed them, although they were avidly watched until out of sight. Almost then the pair noticed rubbled foundations protruding from the dry packed soil, and before long they beheld that which inspired greater interest. It transpired that they entered into the ruins of an olden metropolis that once spread across the wide valley in this portion of the gorge. They picked their way into a jumble of stones as difficult to traverse as the earlier boulder fields, only these were definitely hewn blocks of granite, gigantic in size, bespeaking enormous effort on the part of the ancient workmen. Another turn of the canyon forced them nearer the river, and there, beyond a crumbling wall of porous volcanic rock, they attained what had surely been the heart of the complex. These heaps, these broken slabs, these toppled spires formed pieces of a vast puzzle that indicated to the discerning eye the remains of a grand palace of yore.
To the travelers’ delight the core of the structure loomed sound: a long rectangular building with walls that almost topped the rim of the gorge, the largely fallen roof giving evidence that it once protruded still farther, as to be viewed from afar from the plains outside that huge gash in the earth carved by the nameless river through eons. A series of ornamental columns once surrounded the edifice; most left just their stumps now, but a few stood stark as will the occasional tree after a forest fire. A flight of pink granite steps scaled to the main entrance, where time-scarred statues of winged crocodiles basked with ferocious open jaws atop massy pedestals, flanking the rubble-choked doorway. To this point the men of Dyrezan scrambled over the debris, that they might peer inside.
Lord Morca leaned against the awesomely thick wall, gasped, said, “My brain whirls, Nantrech. There is powerful magic here. It survives! My nerves tingle to it.” His colleague gulped and nodded, replied, “Aye, and I have felt our approach to it since this hour yesterday at least. It is strong.” “Can such force emanate from death’s realm?” “It can, if it does. Prepare we for marvels.”
“Or trouble.” Morca patted his sword hilt. He led the way within. A patch of rough going saw them through into a wide court that the wreckage failed to clog, and they beheld, worn and sad it is true, the relics of antique greatness. These were mostly lovingly shaped stones, and mouths of intricate corridors, and chambers with sills inlaid with fractured marble, pottery shards and bits of tarnished or corroded metal broken from the toppled corpses of statues. Glints of gold gleamed among the hoary trash, sufficient to inflame greed in others, but the wizards sought not such plunder. On the contrary, another item in that place swiftly drew their full interest. This was a big oblong monument of darkly scintillating obsidian, featureless save for indecipherable inscriptions along its base. In area the size of a smallish house, it rose to just over head height.
Lord Nantrech laid hands on stones, breathed deeply. “These radiate dregs of energy,” he said at last; “perhaps everything here casts reflections of the magic that filled these vaults. I say to thee, however, Morca, that the living essence we both sense stems chiefly from that black pile. It is soaked with power.”
“Or it contains a deal,” came the muttered reply. Morca strode rapidly around the object, scanning its few features. Then he exclaimed, “As I thought! It is not a solid piece. This is a vessel of sorts. I find no way to open it, but our desire lies within. Confess, Nantrech, that this thing has the appearance of a tomb.”
“Strangely accurate, I think. Yet if this hall and its outworks be a palace– as we both concluded– then this is a weird location for a coffin. The king of Dyrezan himself would abhor such effrontery. Why situate the dead, or a single dead, amidst the center of civil life?”
“There is no one here to answer thee.”
“But we possess tools, my friend, that may aid us in recovering departed knowledge.” Nantrech sat down on a chunk of roof tile, fished through his largest pouch, extracting a scroll and a handful of colored vials. “I intend to make an exploratory magic. With thy help and blessing, Morca, we shall unlock the portals of time, quest for the meaning that silently reposes here. There are inscriptions to read, an opening mechanism to reveal. Art thou game?”
Lord Morca spoke as if in recital, “If it can be done; it will be done.”
After much study and discussion, this is how they did it. Lord Nantrech drew on the cleared floor an expansive circle in the bottled blood of an august ancestor, and inside this circle he drew five lines from the circumference to a smaller circle in the center. He and Morca entered this, sat with crossed legs with their arcane materials about them. Nantrech mixed solutions in a tiny copper pot, stirred measured portions of necessary but disagreeable ingredients into the soup: the braised eye of an intellectual traitor ritually killed, powdered skull bone of a previous generation’s mage, dried brain tissues looted from selected graves. Morca unrolled the special scroll and, at word from his colleague, began to recite a chant of strange speech formulated in the misty infancy of the empire. He spoke the liquid syllables like a song, pausing at timed intervals that Nantrech might intrude with a short antiphonal supplement. This rite droned on for minutes, then longer; they commenced to repeat it, until partly through the third rendition a change came. The scene around them darkened, grew murky with more than shadow. Overlaid across their vision they saw a bright band of writing, the monument inscription writ large in letters of burning silver. The letters transmuted, refashioned themselves into the everyday forms that men of Dyrezan can ken. The wizards read the words, knew their meaning. All at once the letters were wiped from the screen of sight. Came then close images of certain scant protuberances on the monument, portrayed again and again, then more, in unvarying order. Fleetingly followed an impression of the black monument shuddering, and the vision cleared, dispersing suddenly to show their blinking eyes the ruins as they were.
Lord Morca sighed, sagged from mental weariness. Lord Nantrech took his time tidying up his magic materials, waiting until they were put away to say, “An unusual script for an unusual tongue, hard and declamatory; words for a ruler proud and secure. So, Morca, they placed their last king, Kretchnon, master of the city Noswega– this city– at his bidding alive into the tomb, and there they closed him in when unspeakable peril overwhelmed them. Didst thou get all that?” Said Morca, “I did, all of that, and I note their hesitancy, those priests of Noswega, in explaining their doom. Also, I know now how to open the tomb. It is the proper order of pressing the hidden knobs. I could do it now.” “We will do it, after we rest and feed. It shames me that I lack strength.”
Morca was nothing loath to fill his belly. Intense magic weakens the practitioner. Eventually rejuvenated, they girded themselves late that afternoon to deal with the mysteries of the obsidian mausoleum. Said Morca, “Of course the bodies of the sorceric dead retain vestiges of the power that animated them, and we know well how to tap that power, and excise useful fragments for future use. I am amazed, however, by the potency I feel here. It does not reek of death.”
Nantrech agreed, saying, “You speak wisely; at times I deem thee more than novice. I expect to uncover a remarkably rich effluvium of the arcane. That will repay all our efforts and long wanderings. For that we came. Morca, open the tomb.”
It took no more time to do than to say. The wizard pressed the almost invisible bumps in the glassy surface, the pattern talking to him through his fingertips, and when he was done the great lid rose, swinging back on levers and counter-balanced weights. When it yawned wide the massive stone lid slipped from its moorings and fell off the far side with a jarring clatter. A noisome, musty odor filled the air.
Eager they were to climb into the big container and raid its deceased occupant of his vital parts. They did not do this. Instead that occupant came to them, clambering over the rim to stare down at them. He raised himself up stiffly, stood over them with haughty demeanor somewhat marred by the perplexity on his face. He spoke, and due to their previous cunning magic they grasped the major portion of what he directed at them.
“So my delvings were not in vain. The fruits of my titanic fathers, and my own lifetime of devoted acquisition, bear out the possibilities my own people called insane. The time of torment has come and gone, yet I still live.”
To such a voice they harkened, and such a man they beheld! His words rasped harshly and sneeringly whined. He was tall and frightfully lean, bones and skin, the flesh of his sunken face and skeletal hands sickly pale, all this suggestive of physical malaise but with no appearance of advanced age. The scanty, close-cropped hair of his bulbous pate was black as pitch, and his deep-set eyes black as spider’s eyes. His nose protruded like a beak, and the thin purple lips of his small mouth barely covered his large white teeth. He wore a long crimson robe that hid his arms and feet, with light blue star symbols at his narrow shoulders.
From the folds of his robe he produced a circlet of gold sporting a single large, black gem. This he placed smoothly on his head. As he did so his dark eyes flashed momentarily with a weird red light. A sense of fearsome vitality replaced his seeming former softness. He announced, “I am Kretchnon the king, lord of Noswega, controller of the cosmic forces, epitome of life and death. I resume my sway. I see that my hall has suffered. It is no more than I expected. How fare my subjects?”
Nantrech replied, “You have no subjects, Kretchnon.”
King Kretchnon looked at them narrowly, said with a toothy smile, “I have two, a peculiar pair. Who be you?”
It was Morca who introduced them. With some insolence he added, “Your city and its people are swept away by the corrosive effects of a thousand generations. We of Dyrezan rule now. I expect you will find our world greatly unfamiliar. It will require adaptation on your part.” Nantrech chimed in, rather more pleasantly, “We came seeking lost arts of those ancient to us. You are the first product of our investigation. We mean you no harm. We offer you goodwill, in exchange for your secrets.”
Kretchnon laughed. It was a sound to aggravate wolves to nervous baying. He said, “Give me obedience, or I give you death. You have no other choice, for all choices are mine. I am master again. Now I come down. Aid me.” The wizards of Dyrezan remained stationary. Kretchnon grinned, curled his index finger. The red light gleamed in his eyes, and Nantrech doubled over with a groan. While Morca stepped to his companion the king slipped smoothly to the floor. He went on, “Dare not to oppose me, nor disobey. I have survived the ultimate peril, when the consequences of my magic raised up against me a storm of mystical destruction.”
He stood before them. Morca sprang forward, drawing his sword. In a wink of red light the blade shimmered, smoked, ran like hot ooze. Morca dropped it with a cry, massaged his inflamed sword hand. Kretchnon said, “Yes, I, the last of a long line of warlocks, grasped at total domination. I sought to call forth from the ethereal planes of madness the ominous specter of Astrodemus, the one who knows no bounds, the entity who serves no mortal being. He I called, but at the final moment of conjuration my spell escaped me, ran amok. Astrodemus entered my world, unchained, breathing hatred of everything living, vowing vengeance for my impertinence. My army burned at his approach, my priests were slaughtered; the very Gods quailed and deserted me! I could not stand before him alive. In extremis, I commanded the few remaining priests to inhume me in this tomb, preserved by charms until living human should release me. That you have done, rather later than I expected, to be sure, but what is time but a vulgar illusion? This age will suit me as well. My magical source, the key to my invulnerable majesty, holds true, and I have forgotten nothing. I will be what I was, and more. You will help me, or perish as the first victims of the new order.”
“What is it you want?” Nantrech asked weakly.
“Subjects, armies and slaves, no more than that. I am seeing into the city as we speak. Noswega is naught but rubble! No matter; it can be rebuilt, or if that task bores me, I may take another. This Dyrezan of yours tempts me. Is it a fair city?”
“It is,” growled Morca, “and the mightiest. None dare defy Dyrezan.”
“It shall be my footstool, then, solely to make the point.” Kretchnon snapped, “I must eat. Give me food.” Morca kicked his pack across the floor. The king’s eyes gleamed, and cruel power jolted his unwilling provider. Kretchnon opened the pack and voraciously gobbled what lay therein. “Slop,” he said, “refuse, fit for swine. I shall have better. I detect more subjects at a short distance. Who are they?”
“Primitive tribesmen,” said Nantrech, “occupying this barren gorge known to us as Pentono.”
“Barren? It was a garden valley before Astrodemus blasted it. When I call him up again, he must restore it for me. Meanwhile, these tribesmen must salute me. They can form the first company of slaves to labor for my ambitions.” Kretchnon nodded to himself, seeming to envision the glory to come. When his reverie faded he said, “I will need them to watch you while I move on to bigger conquests. Your rudimentary skills in the arts, I suppose, may prove useful. Nantrech, Morca, for the time being you will serve by gathering for my benefit the necessities of life. With your hands clear me quarters, give me clean space in which to live for the present. Find me fresh food, meat with blood in it. I go to announce myself to these primitives. Think not to flee. I will know if your bodies wander too far afield, and my powers have long reach. Seek joy in my service until I return.” He left them without a backward glance. It was just as well that he could not see their expressive faces.
Nantrech pulled himself erect, said, “We step into a baleful situation.” Morca responded with bitter laughter, “Your words are comical. We are dealing with a monster, one who thinks to introduce into our world the horror that annihilated his own. Whether that lunacy succeed or fail, we must stop him. Did you throw spells at him?” “One, yet he did not flinch.” “I attempted two, without result. Against such a sorcerer magic is useless unless enhanced with proper materials.” Nantrech agreed, saying, “And to reach for them would mean instant death for us, so I refrained, as did thee. We kept our heads.”
“Now we must scheme,” Morca declared, “or we lose our heads in earnest. I will not truckle to him again.”
“He has great power.”
“Aye, that I felt in every nerve. He acts in big fashion without employing matter, through sheer will. Did you notice how? I sensed the source: it is that unlovely jewel in his crown. While it rests on his head, he may be practically invincible.”
“Kretchnon is a fool,” Nantrech said firmly. “He underestimates us, or he would never have left us out of his sight. Already he thinks of us as his lowest menials. Here are we, with our magical substances to hand. Let us concoct a stew, at our leisure, that will choke him.”
They did not lift a finger to satisfy that man, resurrected from his rightful epoch, who styled himself their master. There, in the pathetic wreckage of Kretchnon’s palace at the bleak bottom of the Pentono gorge, they prepared magics of many deaths. It would mean, they knew, arcane combat. Both were skilled, Nantrech supremely so. Their opponent, obviously, was likewise a potent mage, pridefully certain of his prowess. They could not reckon the odds. They would battle to their utmost. The wizards lighted fire balls that they might work as evening fell.
King Kretchnon returned that night with a dozen woebegone spearmen at his back bearing torches to light his way. He said, “Draws to its close the first day on my new reign! Minstrels shall sing of this day of glory. Behold my liegemen, who cower to my will. They required the merest convincing of their fresh status. The old chief had to die– and how he died!– he put on quite a show for them by way of argument. I should have returned sooner, my Dyrezanian slaves, only there are women in that village, and my long hiatus in the tomb left me starved for entertainment. They squealed; with pleasure, I suppose. Now, to business. You have not labored industriously for my sake, I see. That wounds me. That displeases. After I dole out punishments, you shall continue with your lowly tasks, until my benevolent nature is mollified.”
Lord Nantrech said, “Kretchnon, here ends the farce. You are no longer king; you are the mirth-inducing flotsam of a dead century, who temporarily surprised us and brutalized a handful of unwary barbarians. That is the extent of your glory. Minstrels will snicker after you are gone, if we bother to tell your insipid tale. We came to you as equals, that we might gain knowledge of value. You would have it another way, therefore we all lose. Lord Morca and I may return home empty-handed, I fear. You, on the other hand, die.” He thundered that last word, and with the saying he and Morca lifted their staffs, intoned another word, polysyllabic and strange. All across the debris-strewn court foul-smelling green vapors arose. The two wizards rapped their staffs on the flagstones.
Greasy winged things with many thin legs ending in flailing claws appeared in the air, to dive frantically at Kretchnon. Morca cried out to the aghast tribesmen, “Your allegiance to this villain is void. Strike down your oppressor!” But Kretchnon’s laughter boomed, and his eyes twinkled like hateful rubies, and he motioned with splayed hands, and the loathsome harpies fizzled to ash before his face, and the king threw back an arm, and two natives who dared approach him burst into flame. They sputtered liquidly, like guttering candles.
Kretchnon roared through clenched teeth, “Pay the price!” The red gleam flashed in those dark orbs in the hideously pale face, and the resultant blast hurled the mages of Dyrezan from their feet, dashing them against the obsidian tomb. Gasping, they bounded forth to renew the contest, Lord Morca in the van, for his ally was slower to recover. His antagonist fired again, but such was Morca’s physical strength that, having readied himself, he actually shook off the blow which obviously tortured him.
Morca aimed his staff, swore a fevered oath, called to the cowed natives, “Take him from behind while I hold him!” A terrible black cloud formed about Kretchnon’s skull. The king choked, staggered, clawed at his neck, his jaws gaping. A spearman advanced. Kretchnon swiveled at the hips, glanced back, and even as he turned to face again the oncoming Morca, the native came apart in a geyser of blood, his body neatly sheared through at the waist.
The remaining tribesmen threw themselves to the floor, cringing in mindless terror beneath the swirling green mist. Kretchnon’s mad, black eyes turned red, and he chopped air with his hands, and Morca crashed to his knees, as if the weight of the heavens crushed him, the helmet flying from his head. Kretchnon screamed, “Eat him!” and fat, gelatinous worms squirmed from nowhere to close in on their anguished prey. The grotesque, overlarge worms had no eyes, but their bloated heads terminated in yawning mouths full of glassy needles. Endeavor as he might, Morca could not raise his arms to grapple with them.
Lord Nantrech stepped forward, cast down a fine brown powder that crisped the freakish things. Then he took aim with his staff, muttered a spell that fabricated a spiky, hard-shelled beast the size of a cat that leapt through the air to fasten itself on Kretchnon’s leering face. The king groaned, cast off the creature, said it down as a pool of stinking goo, though his cheek was messily slashed and one eye puckered where a long, slender spine had punctured it.
King Kretchnon’s pained fury erupted. His good eye glowed, he shook his fist, raging, “Slave, feel the crunching of your bones!” and Nantrech was borne back groaning, overcome by unendurable agony. Lord Morca crept forward on all fours, dragging his staff, sputtering imprecations and vows of vengeance. Something he said caught Kretchnon off guard, spun him back clasping his robed side, blood spurting through his fingers. The king replied with the beginnings of another cruel charm. It was impossible to predict who would be victorious, or who, if anyone, would survive the magical fracas. At this point, however, another player entered the rampant contest.
A rumble resembling nearby thunder shook the wrecked hall, froze all present in their tracks. Black, oily smoke poured down through the broken roof, coalesced into a massive, roughly ovoid shape above their heads. It took on an appearance of semi-solidity. Vague radiance stirred within the shape, gelled into three yellow, unwinking eyes. The thing spoke, framing ponderous, yet wholly intelligible speech that they heard in their minds rather than with their ears. At the first words Kretchnon shrieked in a rapture of pure horror. The cold, heavy voice said:
“I am Astrodemus, the eidolon of terror. Long ago, as you terrestrial insects count time, the fabric of my being was disturbed, ever so slightly and fleetingly, by the mortal, the less than nothingness that styled itself Kretchnon. I came forth to swat him, but out of false cunning he thought to elude my justice by hiding behind a mockery of death. Pitiful are the ways of men! I could wait an eternity– nay, an eternity of eternities!– to deal my stroke. Through the countless planes of true reality that overlie the material wasteland of your universe the news reached me, shouted by demonic harbingers of darkness, that the trivial one had awakened at last, ready though he knew it not to accept my correction. Kretchnon, this is the time. I shall slay all who stand for you, and then you are mine.”
The king wheeled toward the battered sorcerers of Dyrezan, who stood supporting one another lest they fall from weakness. He shouted in a wild, despairing frenzy, “Aid me! He is a devil from the deepest pits! With our unified forces we can withstand him! We must send this abomination back into its own noxious sphere!”
Lord Nantrech quavered, “Astrodemus, O great one, we of Dyrezan were never so foolish as to soil your revels in the mysterious dimensions beyond our cosmos of time and space. We do not stand for Kretchnon. No man does of this age. We ask mercy for ourselves, nothing for him.”
The voice mused, “That is curious. Kretchnon, when last we dealt with one another, a great kingdom upheld you. I relished its obliteration. No matter; I will have justice. It will be simple this time, elegant. This it is: Kretchnon, who only plays now as king, I strip you of power. You can do no harm. That, I believe, is sufficient. I retire, not to be troubled again.”
The lurid form vanished. Kretchnon screamed, pressed hands to his bony scalp, where the golden crown with its precious black jewel had vanished. He visibly sagged. The poor tribesmen of the gorge of Pentono rose from the pavement, spears in hand, and a kind of gleam in their own eyes that possessed nothing of magic, much of savage delight. They too had heard all, and understood all. Lord Morca drew a dagger from his belt and grinned evilly.
King Kretchnon threw out his hands in supplication, pleaded with his erstwhile subjects, offered them the world he did not have. They closed in around him. Kretchnon died like a dog.
Afterward Lord Morca licked clean his bloody knife, saw off in comradely fashion the sated natives, and succored his friend, who was sluggish in shedding the effects of battle. Once they were alone Morca said to him, “I will shake that blind man when I see him in Voltemar. He lied. We gain naught for our pains; even the king’s magic gem is stolen from us. As a seer he should have predicted that.”
Lord Nantrech chuckled, reached for his water pouch, drank deeply. “You will do nothing. Tomorrow we will ransack these ruins, seeking information. There may be tablets, buried scrolls, and the like. Regardless, the blind one spoke truly, saw surely. His counsel was wise and fair. He offered us no more than possibilities. Admit, friend Morca, that we have experienced a bellyful of those in the gorge of Pentono.”