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The Creature in the Crypt

 Robert M. Price

 

O mighty Lord who sits upon the Throne
Of Lotus leaves dyed full with blood!
Thy rolling eyes like suns and moons above--
Cause them to glance on us alone
When, from amid the woes which towards us flood,
We plead of thee a boon of fatherís love.

 O thou who once contested Valkaís crown
With mighty arm and well-timed blows
And whelmed the demons with resistless power,
Who crushed the skulls of foes with great renown,
Who reigns concealed from whence no mortal knows
By Vandothís Bolt until this present hour!
 

Grant us again thy valor to behold
And free thy lands from those who would despoil,
Divide, destroy, and crush our pride.
And send to us a king of courage bold
And let his foemenís blood enrich our soil!
Cause him to wield thy blade, thy chariot ride!  

The Crimson Veda, Book 68, hymn 8
†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† To Vandoth of the Blood Lotus

 

The day had been long already, and full of toil, when a young, heavily muscled form, journeying southward from Valkarth, had noticed the first signs of pursuit. Picking up speed, he did not waste backward looks to confirm what his keen ears told him, that he had become the intended prey of a pack of Talondos Hounds. These were beasts of which no fossil evidence survives, combining features of our crocodile and wolf. They moved with surprising stealth and speed, given their heavy armor and size, their sense of smell hardly needed now that their victimís form was so clearly etched in the light of the great golden moon of elder Lemuria. There were several of them, and once they caught up to the single human form, he sold his blood dearly, exchanging it for two of their lives before escaping in a burst of speed, his arrows spent and his sword abandoned, jammed in one their armoured carcasses. His great strength necessarily waned as he still managed to put some distance between him and his pursuers, now perhaps a bit less eager to run him to ground, especially since the evening temperature was rapidly falling.

The man, running now on sheer endurance, was Thongor of Valkarth. He lived on a continent long vanished, even from the theories of ethnographers and students of mythic lore: Lemuria, the great incubator of primal life forms, some of which survived the eons, others not. Man was one such successful experiment, though todayís specimens seem degenerate and colorless by comparison. Thongorís species developed here earlier than anywhere else on the globe, sharing the continent with jealous competitors including the great saurians and a few other mammalian species fit to battle them or escape them. Jealous, too, was the great Indian Ocean, as we have learned to call it. Its eager waves lapped at Lemuriaís shores, awaiting the day they should be able to swallow it whole, save for a sprinkling of surviving islands. The climate of the lost continent was a queer combination, cold at both extremities, warm in the middle. This was because the north was given over entirely to towering mountain cliffs whose heights were ever shrouded in blue-white snow drifts; while, just below, the jungle-clad plains were exposed to the fury of the equator, which declined as one went further south toward primal Antarctica, where legends ancient even then whispered the lurking presence of strange pre-human intelligences.

Having descended the mountains of his birth, Thongor had been tracing a horizontal course along their base, seeking occasional refuge in hillside caves or higher eyries when his flirtations with the plainsmen grew too dangerous. Now it was the pursuit of the Talondos Hounds that made his golden eyes, miniature twins of the moon above seek some sign of a mountain-face cave. And he found one. Far enough above the level terrain to discourage the Hounds, it would yet demand of him all his remaining strength. The bargain mentally made, Thongor began the ascent, finding the tiniest of jagged hand- and footholds. The snapping and hissing of the pack below grew fainter as he finally heaved himself over the lip of the ledge and into the cave. The sleep of exhaustion overtook him at once, heedless of any new danger the cave itself might present.

When he next awoke, a full day had come and gone, and with them, his pursuers. The golden moon once again eerily illuminated the landscape, as well as a bit of the interior of the cave in which Thongor found himself. By its filtering rays he could see that what he had taken for a small hole in the rock face was the merest antechamber of some larger, hidden structure. A sharp turn revealed the presence, suddenly cut off by a near wall, of a complex, if crudely delineated bas-relief mural. The subject matter was not entirely strange to the barbarianís golden eyes, for it depicted scenes of embattled figures, possibly representing any of the bloody sagas of his, or of any, people. His native curiosity beckoned him explore, especially as the recesses might offer a more than adequate refuge from any returning Talondos Hounds. But to see any more, he would need more light. And unless the cave had been carved for the benefit of the blind, it seemed likely the means for light making ought to lie near at hand. A momentís tentative searching confirmed his expectation. His questing hand met a rusting iron bracket set shakily into the stone wall, while his booted foot encountered a clay jar. He judged that it ought to be a jar of fuel oil. A quick whiff of the gummy deposit at the bottom told him he was right. A couple more of the brackets, and he found a dried-up reed torch, almost a brush. He scrubbed this into the sticky bottom of one of the jars until he had enough to light.††

In the first moment the torch flared too brightly, then settled down. But in the initial flare Thongor could make out the full panorama, a cave stretching some twenty yards, its uneven floor and stalagmite-fanged interior covered with heaps and bins of treasure and other ancient objects. As his eyes began to adjust to the gloom, his memory filling in the gaps of what he could no longer so clearly see, he went deeper into the shaft, examining what he could. An occasional oath escaped his lips.

It was a surprise, then a wonder, then something suspicious: all manner of objects were heaped before him in disarray, implying they had been picked through many times, yet finally left unmolested. Here and there stood statues, apparently of various gods and totems, some of them irreverently tilted against the walls, others carefully set in carven niches. A few were vaguely familiar, while others seemed like more primitive versions of conventional deities. There, for instance, was elephant-headed Chaugganath, but his countenance was wooly and shaggy. Another was nobly human in form, his great mane of hair seeming to merge with a storm cloud, his beard with the cataract of rain, and he held in his mighty fist a levin-bolt. Surely this was Father Gorm. Others had multiple arms and faces. Thongor had heard there were nineteen gods, though he did not know why there should be so many, but there were not nearly that number here.

Leather bags, clay pots, and metal tubs overflowed with polished sea-shells, which might have been used by some tribe as currency, though the very concept was new to Thongor, whose people used only barter to meet their simple needs. Scattered feathers in profusion suggested the long-ago decay of a supply of arrows left by the guardians of this storage place. Occasional metal boxes which did not seem to be mere containers sported what looked like dull gems and pointless studs, some of them round and grooved at tiny intervals. What use these might serve, the barbarian knew not and so passed them without further glance. His eye fell next on the clay likeness of a fat sun-lizard. He knew what a succulent treat its living counterpart made and wished urgently that he had one to satisfy the hunger he suddenly felt so keenly!

He cursed in amazement as a nearby noise of disturbance betrayed the skittering presence of the clay reptileís living twin! Swiftly disemboweling it with a rusty knife, he cooked it impatiently in the tarry smoke of the torch and devoured the morsel in an instant. The taste was not bad, but the meal seemed to lack any and all substance. He wrote it down to voracious hunger no one tidbit could satisfy. That his wish was so quickly met he did not pause to consider.

Thongor more and more felt he would like to leave the peculiar haven. There was an uncanniness to the place that made him feel he was taking some great risk simply by being there. But the night outside was cold, and he knew predators could not be far off. It seemed easier to stay and brave whatever might challenge him here, which was probably no more than a fearful imagination. He continued to examine the amassed loot, laying his hand next of a chest of gemstones, of various hues, though all strangely dull even in his torchlight. He knew enough of the ways of civilized men to know that trinkets like these would be deemed valuable, and he at once resolved to take with him a goodly supply on the morrow. But then he wondered again why the treasure was still here undisturbed. Surely he could hardly be the first to stumble upon the place.

A hoard of a very different sort next met his eyes: a great stone bin filled to the brim with skulls! Thongor gasped, and his small nape-hairs began to stir. Were these the remains of previous intruders? On the other hand, he had noticed no recent disturbance of the dusty floor, much less any signs of struggle. He had once heard that some of the ancient kings and priests amassed their own bones with those of their predecessors in this fashion. Was it then a crypt?

Further scrutiny revealed a jar of leather and palm-papyrus scrolls. The latter fell to fragments at his touch, though he instinctively knew to be gentle. The former proved more durable, though no more helpful to the illiterate young man. He lifted his eyes from the puzzle-like glyphs lining the red-dyed page, only to drop the scroll in surprise as a second figure appeared beside him, seemingly out of nowhere! He relaxed somewhat as he beheld, not the form of a fighting man, but rather of a wizened elder, not unlike the painted shamans of his own people. The ancient spoke not a word but stooped to retrieve the leather book. As Thongor looked on in wonder, a whispering voice broke the long silence of the chamber, intoning some chant in a tongue Thongor knew not, though he fancied he recognized one or two divine names. Interrupting the stream of what seemed to him gibberish, Thongor made to speak to the man in his own rude language. His words had an effect, if not the intended one, for at the first of them, the old man fell silent and disappeared! And the scroll had vanished with him. Again, a wish had been fulfilled for a moment, only to tease him!

Now determined to flee this cursed place, whatever dangers might await him without, Thongor made one last sweep with his fading torch, seeking perhaps some cloak against the cold, some weapon to make his way safer. Surely no ghostly guardian could begrudge him these?

But, over there, barely visible in the gloom, yet hitherto-unseen, was a great throne, and him who sat upon it: a skeleton, whom examination revealed to be wearing the rags of once-fantastic vestments, as well as an antique crown. This last had once mounted the broad forehead but now formed a great collar around the bone-bare neck. Every instinct bade him flee, but Thongor lingered to gaze upon the figure and upon the weapon it held in its rotting claws, across the arms of the throne. A great unsheathed length of steel, it seemed to have played the role of royal sceptre as well as of savage cleaver. It was festooned with jewels, but these blazed with the glory earlier absent from the massed rubies and sapphires he had seen piled in bins and baskets. Stranger still, they seemed to glow with an inner radiance, as Thongorís torch had now died out. The blade was brilliant silver without a trace of rust. Thongor of Valkarth knew he must have it. Not so much greed as a sense of destiny impelled him, for, in truth, he feared it as much as he lusted for it.

Reluctantly, he who blanched not at the shedding of his own blood or that of another began with disgust to peel away the flaking fingers of the thing in the crypt. As he freed the last on the left hand, he felt... resistance. Wondering and aghast at what this might mean, the young giant stepped involuntarily back. "Gorm's privates!" he blasphemed unconsciously. What his widening golden eyes beheld was the sudden bulking and rejuvenating of the desiccated form on the throne. He watched in detached fascination as if what transpired there had nothing to do with him, as indeed perhaps it might not. The head became a blur as its skeletal dome began to rise from its age-long nod. And when Thongor could see it again, the head was massive and proud, blue-skinned like the Rmoahal nomads of the south, skull as bare as before save for a single oily black braid. The ears were pointed and bore silver hoop-rings. The nostrils flared. The eyes bulged slightly, and there were three of them, one perched above the others, moving concurrently with them in his direction. The powerful form began to rise, one arm hefting the huge sword, a second reaching out for Thongor, and an additional pair emerging from concealment as a great cloak swept back from them. The crown again rode his brow.

The Valkarthan reached instinctively for his scabbard, his hand closing on empty air. The fact registered but dimly as his hair stood on end and his breath grew short. He decided to take the first blow, if only to gauge the giantís strength. He allowed himself to be grasped by the shoulder and thrown to the wall, where, as anticipated, the piles of various objects broke the force of his impact. He rose bruised, casting about for some weapon. In the meantime he took refuge in evasive maneuvers and inconsequential blows which seemed to register as he dealt them but which failed to slow down his strange opponent an iota. Thongor began to throw some of the larger objects at his enemy. None harmed the giant, but when one or another of the divine images found its mark, Thongor noticed how the stone or metal seemed to cause the monsterís bluish flesh to spark and smolder in a peculiar way. He had thought the nature of his adversary a mystery to be pondered later, at his leisure, should he escape with his life. Now he began to realize that the solution of the mystery would be his only effective weapon.

With a terrible reverberation, the giant figure began to speak, though in a tongue Thongor knew not. And nonetheless he began to experience a sense of recognition. Had he seen something like this creatureís form depicted in the wall mural? Yes he had. More than once. Haloed deities bowed before him, presumably a king or a god himself. If the barbarian's own experience were any clue, the giant must have defeated them all in battle, proven his worthiness to be their king. And would he prove now to be Thongorís master, even in death? Not if the Valkarthan could help it! He gathered his strength and leaped at his foe. His boots were apt weapons: the giant fell backwards, though at once he rose up, none the worse for wear. Frustration lent new fury and power to the few blows Thongor managed to launch while not avoiding the arcs of the great silver sword. He fought with renewed energy, if no more effect. He judged that the creature before him was truly flesh, had become flesh, but was somehow more. Alien flesh absorbed the impact of his blows, but the thing was no ghost, else Thongorís flailing fists had met no resistance.††

As the two circled, Thongorís eye caught something he hadnít noticed before: a shield. A shining relic, of little use for offense by itself, and perhaps the twin of the sword the giant held fast. The other saw it, too, and both dove for it. Thongor came up with it. He knew the blue-skinned behemoth scarcely required it to fend off his blows, so there must be some other advantage in possessing it--or perhaps an advantage to him in Thongorís not having it.

Stepping away from the creature, Thongor hefted the shining disk so that he might behold the approaching form of his foeman over his shoulder. It seemed insanely foolish, but in that moment, he had found the crucial weapon that had thus far eluded him: knowledge. For now he understood the true nature of his enemy. In the reflective silver, that metal celebrated for canceling every spell, Thongor saw but an animated lattice of ancient bones, some of them trailing cobwebs and bits of desiccated gristle. Alien, antehuman, preternatural it was, but it was finally a rotten tree of bones, and, laughing, Thongor swept them aside with a wave of the shield. They sprayed across the chamber, many of them collapsing into the omnipresent dust. Struggling against his own fears, he had at last prevailed with the aid of a momentís thought.

The great sword fell with an almost musical ringing clang. Holding the shield fast, Thongor bent down to retrieve its partner. He made to leave the treasure shaft forever. But on second thought, he stooped and stared about again, looking for the fallen crown of the phantom god-king. He found it, twirled it around an index finger, and toyed with the momentary temptation to place it on his own brow in a pantomime inauguration. The empty throne was just behind him, as if he had freshly risen from it. As he stood there, the awful fatigue of the last two daysí exertions fell upon his shoulders. How good it would feel to take a rest upon the dusty throne! Perhaps a healing nap of an hour or so before going on his way. Without him noticing any passage of the threshold of sleep, dreams nonetheless began to fill his head, and he saw himself reigning from that throne as Sark of all Lemuria! Just as this vanquished being had once reigned in his heyday of the remote past?

And of a sudden Thongor beheld his own likeness displayed in the mirror face of the shield: it had become one with the blue-skinned, three-eyed visage of his fallen opponent! Casting both sword and shield from him like a pair of hungry vipers, Thongor, destined perhaps one day to be king, but not this day, sprang from the throne as from a well-laid trap and made his way down along the shaft to the welcome freshness of the night air.

There was neither sight nor scent of his recent pursuers. Pausing a moment, Thongor took the risk of retracing his running steps till he came upon the bleeding heap from which he had earlier dared not stop to retrieve his sword. Now he braced one foot on the stoney ribcage and yanked the Valkarthan blade free, wiping the blade of the creature's foul blood with a handful of leaves. Resuming his southward course, Thongorís steady stride devoured the miles. At length he stood still, and in the light of the golden moon he gazed again at his reflection, this time in the mirror-face of his own familar sword. Thankfully, it was his natural face. He knew not what destiny awaited him; surely it had been foolish to entertain the thought of his one day sitting a throne. He laughed aloud now. But he knew his path lay south, and it was time to be on his way.

 

Copyright©2004 by Robert M Price
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