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The Fifth Narrative:
The Ghoul's Tale
The nethermost caverns are not meant for the eyes that see the light of day; nay, but the revelations thereof are reserved unto those, for whom, like unto the eyeless fish aswim in the subterrene grottos, darkness has become as light. And such was I, Alhazred, spiritual son of the mage Yakthoob and Opener of the Gate whereby the Spheres meet. I had long since become even as one with the creatures of night and shadow, and it was the smiling of the sun that I cursed. Oft had I ventured into earth's cancerous bowels in search of the secrets of the grave, and thus it was that I came to delve beneath the ruins of elder Aegypt into the honeycombed netherworld of Amente itself, wherein sits enthroned for all aeons to come the desiccated shell of the Acheronian sorcerer-king Nephren-Ka. Whispered legends had it that all the destiny of the ages had been vouchsafed unto the Black Pharaoh, and that the secrets of Trismegistus Nyarlathotep were traced upon the copious lengths of yellowed linen that now enclosed him. It was this artifact that I sought in my folly. For though many esteemed me master of the eldritch arts, the greater wisdom was that of my novices and acolytes, none of whom dared follow me.
Passage was easily enough wrought, providing one but knew the hidden paths, and such knowledge was mine, for had I not bargained with Those whose chart the topography of Hell and of other realms more dreadful still for those unwilling to wait till death should take them there? Like unto the ancient mage-king Solomon ibn-Daud who adorned his courts with apes and peacocks and thought no cost too great for these fancies, neither did I estimate any reckoned price too dear for the secrets held out to tempt me, as I have related aforetime. I shudder even yet at the fearful tribute of one eye that foetid Nug exacted of my Master Yakthoob for the secret of the Elixir of the angels, and no less at the demand of Tsathoggua, the Abomination beneath Memphis, whom naught less than mine own manhood would satisfy. For the knowledge of Irem the City of Pillars I ceded a full score of years from my life yet to come. The price of the map to the throne of buried Nephren-Ka I care not to repeat, save that the leather scroll I scrutinized by the flickering light of my torch was tanned from mine own back. And this was but the beginning of sorrows. But so much and more I judged to be small in exchange for what powers might be mine if I were to gain for myself that winding sheet.
The hieratic glyphs lining the walls about me, preserved by the arid heat of Aegypt's blazing sands, mutely proclaimed the original purpose of the shaft I now half-trod, half-slid down at a steep angle. In ages past, the place had served as an initiation hall for those who sought to plumb the deepest mysteries of Set-Typhon and Gol-Goroth, secret Gods of antediluvian Acheron. I scrupled not to defile these holy precincts with my passage, since was mine own errand not a pilgrimage for knowledge? I, too, would possess the secrets of the Ancients.
Hours and days became night indistinguishable to me as I made my continual descent. Sorely did I require sleep, but no opportunity was found, and at all events, I had years before bartered the power of restful slumber for some esoteric secret or other. Truly I did commence to fancy that I heard the noise around me as of some foul vermin scuttling somewhere beyond the scope of my vision. But this uneasy awareness I sought to dismiss, reasoning instead that the sounds must be merely those of mine own slow progress downward, distorted and partly magnified by the peculiar shape of the passage by which I sought ingress.
In the fullness of time did I gain my sought-for destination. Before me yawned vast doorposts and lintel wrought cunningly of black and polished stone. Glyphs in the tongue of Acheron announced the place for that terrible vault in which the withered mummy of Nephren-Ka, earthly avatar of the Crawling Chaos did drowse away the ages. Again I scarce could dismiss the uneasy feeling that crafty eyes tracked my movements, but so great was my eagerness to despoil the tomb of what lay unsuspecting within it that I spared thoughts for naught else, waxing bold to enter.
The shadows in the adytum were doubly thick, and the torch I bore did little in truth to dispel them. Still, the object of my quest was plainly manifest. I stepped silently toward the figure seated on a dais at the far extreme of that charnel chamber. But, soft!, a sound that was verily no mere echo brought me up short. Doubtless, another was with me in the place. I stood still, then turned warily about, seeking to detect my living shadow. I had not long to search, for the silence of the ages was straightway vanquished by the echoing of a voice soft and sly like unto the voice of the Edenic serpent--and it did hiss mine own name! What guardian demon had apprehended me?
"It is I, old friend, thy fellow apprentice, Ibn-Ghazi. I dared not believe mine eyes, but of a truth, thou canst be none other than Alhazred!"
He stepped forward into the narrow circle of fading light cast forth by the torch I grasped. And in the feeble luminescence I saw that the past had forsooth yielded up a ghost I had thought never to behold again, even that false-hearted betrayer who had seen fit to sell the soul of our Master, the venerable Yakthoob, merely to satisfy his carnal appetites. Seeing him now brought no joy to my heart.
"Praise be to Iblis that thou hast come at last, O Alhazred! Oft have I prayed for deliverance from the curse that hath befallen me. For long have I paid dire penance for the deeds that disgraced me."
I would fain know how the infamous Ibn-Ghazi had happened upon this place, since scarce could I imagine he had either sought or gained occult erudition like unto mine during the many years since we had learned together at the feet of Yakthoob (upon whom be peace), for that he preferred the ways of Dionysus to those of Hecate.
"'Twas the merest luck, O Alhazred, that brought me hither, though ill luck, to be sure. Like you, my brother, I sought the Elder lore among the houses of silence, but I chanced to attract the unwelcome attentions of a pack of meeping feasters upon the dead, even the muzzled children of Anubis al-Ghul. Meseems their pickings to be slim insofar as they have of late waxed exceeding bold to pursue the living, there being insufficient carrion to satisfy them. And in my flight I took whatever winding paths and tunnels I might, at length successfully eluding the mangy devils. At yon shadowed portal they recoiled with much yelping and slunk away like the craven curs they are. And now, forsooth, I do confess I fear to depart, lest, in their great hunger, mayhap it transpire that they linger, waiting to pounce upon my person."
"Ibn-Ghazi," said I, "I marvel that these loping feasters reckon thee not among their own number, as thou hast most abundantly proven thyself the most craven of jackals. But then little do they know thee as I know thee. Nonetheless, thou canst readily see how I myself penetrated even unto thine hiding place without molestation, howbeit I did think to hear furtive sounds upon my way. But if what thou sayest be true, how was it they did not beset me?"
Ibn-Ghazi answered, saying: "That I wot not, O brother in Al-Monsin Metatron! Save that I suspect thine own aura of occult sanctity hath repelled them even as hath that of this holy fane."
Somewhat in this reply pleased me not, and I inquired whether it was in truth mere happenstance which had brought him to the resting place of the avatar of Nyarlathotep. Mayhap he had contrived to steal or cheat his way to this secret adytum, knowing full well the value of that which lay within. Yet his fear was most palpably real.
"If, old comrade, thou hast, by the providence of those Powers we serve, come so far on some errand of discovery, then permit thine humble acolyte to serve thee in this venture. All I shall beg in return is thy protection in passage from this dark place. What sayest thou?"
My torch had now grown exceeding dim. And as the darkness waxed thick, certain shadows commenced to shift and to circle about us twain. The sounds of nameless chittering and cachinnation were now unmistakable, and for all that did the fear which had plagued Ibn-Ghazi seem to depart the closer did the loathsome ghouls approach.
"Meseems thou hast underestimated the power of these surroundings to keep yon parasites at bay. Well do I now discern thine insidious craft, how, trapped by the ghouls, thou didst bargain with them to spare thine own worthless life in return for thy services in procuring for them human meat. Then would they at length suffer thee to depart with the Shroud of the Black Pharaoh."
"O Alhazred," the traitor mocked, "thy reputed wisdom never faileth! Albeit it may dawn a moment too late." With this did the coarse forms of the ghouls draw fast about me, as my flesh, friend to a thousand abominations, did nonetheless quail from the loathsome caress of their drooling muzzles. Next did they force me to my knees as Ibn-Ghazi, whose villainy exceeded their own for that it was freely embraced and no necessity of nature, made for the recumbent form of the husk of Nephren-Ka, drawing his dagger with the which he might more swiftly despoil the rotting cadaver of its wrappings and be on his way.
But it was not for naught that, whilst Ibn-Ghazi had wenched and drunk away his energies over the years, I had devoted myself with ascetical ardor to the scrutiny of the Elder Records filched from the very bog of Ubbo-Sathla. Unlike my torch, my resources were far from spent, and I did utter forth the binding spell of Anubis, the totem of those feasters upon the dead. Straightway there concatenated a nimbus of light of no familiar hue. Even as the mongrel hounds of this world do fall back and cringe before the sound that surpasses human hearing, so did the ghouls fall back in agony, and I was free of their noisome clinging.
I was astonied past all measure to behold Ibn-Ghazi halt in his course, as if seized by an unseen hand. Slowly he made to turn, sore racked with pain, but having taken up his evil cackling again. Only now that chilling laughter issued forth from canine jaws, from which poisonous spittle did drip. So Ibn-Ghazi was himself one of the ravening pack! His trap had not been as I surmised, though of a certainty it was nonetheless treachery most foul. That he was not thoroughly whelmed by the magic I had summoned I ascribed to whatever vestiges of his sorcerous apprenticeship he had retained from his early days of tutelage under the venerable Yakthoob. And now therefore I made ready to deal with him.
Only that as it eventuated, this task was made moot unto me. For all at once did the rangy form of Ibn-Ghazi fall limp in the grasp of a towering figure looming up from behind him, even, as the fading radiance of mine cantrip shewed, the shuffling lich of the Ebon Pharaoh, whose millennial rest our interloping presence had disturbed! Deep did his bony talons sink, cutting into the leathery flesh of the ghoul-changeling and choking off his blasphemous cackle. Stinking, sluggish blood overflowed the mummy's hands as his ineluctable grip inexorably severed Ibn-Ghazi's head from his neck. I beheld the dead visage changing once again into the semblance of human features even as the head dropped to the dusty ground like an overripe fruit.
I stood as nerveless as an embalmed mummy ought by rights to stand, transfixed as the hideous eyeless gaze of Nephren-Ka turned in my direction. He made no sound, but the tiny writing scribed upon his funereal bands was eloquent in its mockery. I knew I should have the lavish boon of the Gods should I escape with the treasure of my own life, if not my soul. And that is what I did, abandoning the tomb of the revenant forever, so do I swear by Al-Illah or whatsoever Gods may yet deign to hear me.
Robert M Price
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