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The Burrower Beneath
By Robert M. Price
It is said that immortality is for the gods alone, and with this precept I, even Eibon of Mhu Thulan, am devoutly inclined to agree. But it was not always thus with me. For in earlier days, ere I learned it were possible to grow weary of life, I dared to know if perchance mortal man might attain unto the immortal durance of the gods. Nor was I daunted in this quest, save only by the fulfillment thereof. But I speak in paradoxes and had best retrace my steps that my meaning may become manifest, for tis a lesson I would deposit here for the pondering of others.
It was in the first flower of my mastery of the esoteric arts that I did injudiciously reckon myself capable of any marvel I might conceive if only the proper technique be found, nor lacked I the boldness to fancy I might find or fashion the means to accomplish any task I set upon. Moreover, well knew I that much was discovered by the elder magi which has since been suffered to lapse into forgetful oblivion by those of too timid a disposition to pay the price of a glimpse Beyond. But I was possessed of no such qualms; hence I dared barter with certain unclean fiends, paying a fee I like not to name, for the recovery of long-interdicted screeds penned by devils in inks of molten blood.
Of these mayhap the foulest blasphemies lurked in that papyrus called The Black Rituals of Koth-Serapis, an enchanter dire who vexed the earth in the lost days of Acheron. For it was whispered in the banned and shunned circles of nether adepts that the unholy Koth-Serapis had contrived forever to cheat death. And, foolish novice that I was, despite my scholarly and thaumaturgical achievements, I determined to uncover the sand-blown path trod in elder days by dark Koth-Serapis. My reasoning was thuswise: if in truth that mage had attained unto the very secret of unending life, it must still, even with the passage of uncounted centuries, be feasible for one such as myself to make contact with him. That the attempt should not prove easy deterred me not a whit, and thus did I embark, defying the sage cautions of brother wizards my elder in years and much my superior in wisdom.
None of my sorcerous brethren had any clue to aid me had they wished to do so. Thus I knew I should have to seek what help I might through other, less dependable channels. I reasoned that, of all beings, the ones likeliest apprised of the whereabouts of a man made immortal would be those whom mortality had already claimed. Whether from envy or not, the dead might be supposed to know somewhat of one who had cheated the fate that had overtaken them, in like manner to earthly prisoners who lionize their cleverer brethren who have escaped the dungeon that still holds the rest of them. But I must needs seek the spirit of one who shared the earth with the ancient Koth-Serapis, and one who himself knew sufficient of the necromantic arts to guide me unto my hoped-for mentor.
At length I fastened upon the far-distant isle of Serendip for my most profitable goal, for that it did constitute one of the last-remaining fragments of sundered Lemuria, that primal continent from the dawn age of the earth, from whence the primordial Dragon Kings did reign before the fabled Mahathongoya did drive them forth, as is written in the hoary pages of the Upa-Puranas, after which they did take refuge, some in Valusia, some in mine own land of Hyperborea. There I hoped to find the ruins of the much-legended Tomb of Shahrajah, greatest of the magi of the pre-Cataclysmic age.
So I did book passage on a slaver's vessel embarking from the southern harbors of Atlantis and headed East. The adventures I encountered on the voyage may be told in their own place, but I must needs be on with my tale. Suffice it that I contrived, once or twice, to lure up from the deep in the lightless hours of New Moon some few of the finny children of Dagon, who assured me that the Temple of Shahrajah still stood and told me of the most auspicious route there.
After many days our ship reached the shores of the island I sought, and I bade my companions farewell. Most sorry were they to lose me, too, for that my command of certain elemental spirits had more than once proved valuable in providing fair weather for sailing, and they should henceforth have to rely upon Nature's caprices as hitherto.
In the wave-beaten kingdom of Serendip I was cordially received by the ruler of the island who kindly put at my disposal all manner of provisions I should require for this last earthly stage of my quest. By way of gratitude I enlivened the evening's feasting with a number of simple conjurer's tricks which all present received with unbridled childish delight.
Early on the morrow, accompanied by a small party of dusky-skinned bearers, who did not cease to remark to one another upon my sun-paled Northern coloration, I set forth into the jungled recesses of the island. The unaccustomed heat I kept at bay by use of a cantrip learned from the dwarves of Hyperborea who spend much time amid subterranean magmic fires forging rune-inscribed arthame-swords like the one that even now slapped my hip as I walked.
After we had covered some distance amid the gorgeous jungle luxuriance, the like of which is not to be found in my own land, I directed my companions to depart from the well-trod pathways known to them, keeping to that course vouchsafed me by the scaly Dagonites. But at this suggestion, they were sore afraid, as the proposed detours must take us through certain zones anciently forbidden them under pain of dire taboo. I assured them they need not fear so long as they remained close in my presence, but some begged leave to camp where they were and await my return, seeing that I professed not to fear aught that might eventuate. For a primitive people their logic was quite sound, even though they might exercise it in the interest of base superstition, and in the end I insisted that they all linger there together and await me.
In truth, the ruined fane of the Lemurian mage lay not much farther away, and I gained the goal before the sun had set. In the slanting rays of the tropical sun I came upon what remained of the elder temple, which old scrolls made both mausoleum to the great wizard and altar of sacrifice unto his spirit. The weight of history bore heavily upon me as I stood in the presence of a mighty shadow from the epic past. Almost I felt that no ceremony should be needful, so powerfully did I feel his eldritch presence. Nonetheless I hastened to observe the ancient protocol prescribed for such solemn occasions, drawing forth from my baggage the brazen tripod for the offering of incense. Slowly I incanted the Great Necromantic Invocation and breathed deep the oracular fumes. The sense of time slipped from me and at some point I was made aware of a Personage standing before me, radiant with a strange penumbral fire.
"Why hast thou disturbed my rest, O man of the latter days?"
I fell to my knees before the mighty apparition and averted my gaze from his brow which seemed a darksome thundercloud. "Great Lord Shahrajah! I bid thee hear me out! I have come a great distance..."
"I have come a greater!"
"Yea, Lord, forgive my effrontery. I pray thee, tell me how I may find the undying Koth-Serapis!" In all this I dared not look into the face of That One I had dared summon.
"Thou wouldst call up a dead mage to find a living devil? His is a path no sane mind shall follow. I give thee this warning, O Eibon. Moreover, I shall grant thy boon, for that I see thou hast not in thee to take that which thou seekest once thou find it. And if the blasphemy of Koth-Serapis hath again become a lure unto mankind, it may be profitable for the truth of it to be revealed."
I returned to my faithful bearers, offering my regrets for having delayed them overlong, though in truth I had no sense for how much time had transpired. They gazed at me as at one mad, saying how I had left them but moments before, and that scarce had they sat to wait for me. We turned and made our way back to the palace of the Prince of the island in uneasy silence. I kept my counsel all the long months of my journeying back to the Hyperborean shores, assured now that my path lay clear before me, yet with a foreboding sense that the fulfillment of my desire would nevertheless not satisfy me. Little had I yet learned from the enigmatic oracle of the shade of Shahrajah. But all would soon become clear.
Back among the familiar surroundings of mine own sorcerous sanctum where fuelless flames and bubbling potions surrounded me with comforting warmth, I made ready again, with a weariness of soul, to take flight to a distant shore, though this time it be one supramundane, for that Shahrajah's revelation indicated no less a destination than the dread Vale of Pnath, the which I had not yet visited so early in my magickal career.
I made ready the needful preparations and in no time floated freely above my fleshly vessel. Freed thus from the blinders of the flesh, I now saw all manner of hidden things which circulate invisibly about us every hour, and which it is a mercy to have hidden from us. Likewise, a glance over to the stairwell leading from my chamber revealed what daylight obscured, even the onyx staircase of seven thousand steps to the Underworld of Deep Dendo.
Down these I rapidly made my way until I saw stretching before me the baleful expanse of the Vale of Pnath, a wasteland like unto the silvered sands of the Moon, where evil Mnomquah holdeth foul sway. I liked not what I saw and knew that even in mine astral form I might meet with untold dangers in such a place. Like a drifting spectre I passed over the desolate and much-cratered face of Pnath, seeking a certain Pit, named in suppressed legends as the Abyss of Noth, whereunto the cryptical whispers of dead Shahrajah had directed me. I lingered a moment upon the Precipice of Noth to gaze at the fearful spectacle outstretched in the shifting infra-red vapors below me. For there lay none other than the blighted Necropolis of Nug-Hathoth of which the ancient lore-masters record naught that is wholesome.
I must needs take care to arrive no sooner than the fateful Hour of the Opening of the Under Burrows, the which I should know by the noxious Rising of the Black Wind which would bear up unto my ears the terrible gruntings of the Dholes as they issued forth in blind fumblings to commence their charnel feastings. I deemed it best to settle down upon the crest of the upthrust Tower of Narghan, and there to await the emergence of the eyeless slugs from their curiously asymmetrical burrows.
It was the sudden tortured wailing of unseen hounds that heralded the arrival of those unclean Ones whom I awaited. I made ready to descend to the nitrous tunnel mouths below when, of a sudden, there arose before me a jetting column of viscid loathsomeness, the titan form of the greatest of charnel behemoths, fully as tall as that high tower on whose pinnacle I stood! Its face, if such it may be called, betrayed no sign of sentience, its only true feature a sticky and unclean maw which yawned hideously and worked unceasingly, drooling with unspeakable poisons.
Great was my affrighted shock when the thing spoke in human accents! "Name thyself, mortal man, that I may know whom I am about to digest."
"Nay, King of the Dholes, thou mayest not feast upon my ectoplasm, as I am not the soul of one dead, but only on a journey, seeking for nighted wisdom and the mysteries of the worm. In truth, I seek for the undying wizard Koth-Serapis; knowest thou aught concerning him, O Burrower Beneath?"
At this, something perhaps intended as mirth escaped the fanged hole. "And wherefore wouldst thou find that one, O morsel?"
I liked his converse less and less and hoped he might unveil the knowledge I sought before I must endure more of his soul-upheaving stench, which even the senses of the astral body may detect.
"For that legends say he alone of all mortals hath attained unto immortality, and this secret I would know. Now I bid thee in the Bond of Pnath to tell me of the whereabouts of that Koth-Serapis, if indeed thou knowest."
That living pillar of cosmic foulness did commence fairly to quake with uncontrolled hilarity till methought its hideous bulk would shudder asunder.
"Know then that Koth-Serapis the mage learned that in no wise may the flesh of mortals retain a hold upon life forever. But it may yet cheat death by embracing the same the more fully. By force of adamant will may the wizard, if he but maintain the mindfulness thereunto at the moment of death, endure the through the defilement of his carcass by the maggot's tongue, till he passeth with the last shred of fleshly sustenance into the conqueror worm, whereupon may he bend the brainless vermin to his will, instructing the very worm that gnaws till he find himself reborn, new and oddly embodied."
Having gained the awful knowledge for which I had dared so much, I turned and fled in the most disgraceful fashion, leaving the mocking laughter of my informant echoing telepathically in my stricken brain. The shocking truth thus revealed to me cut short my journey, and I did start awake back in my chamber in the black tower of Mhu Thulan. Then well did I perceive the wisdom of Shahrajah, that only in learning the secret of immortal durance should I resolve never to pursue it more, and, though I have since not scrupled to prolong my earthly sojourn by certain esoteric means, when death at last does come to claim me, I shall look upon his visage as that of a friend and join him gladsomely. For in the last moment I knew the inconceivable price paid by ancient Koth-Serapis, in that it was his own towering, maggoty bulk which spoke to me!
Robert M Price
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