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The Gordian Knot
From The Testaments of Carnamagos
Translated by Robert M. Price
All men know of the deeds of Alexander Dhulkarnein, Son of Zeus-Amon, binder of Gog and Magog, how he conquered the world and gained glory as had none before him. But there remain secret episodes unknown to all but the demons who have revealed them unto me, whispering them into my ear. It is for curiosity's sake that I, Carnamagos, have bartered my soul, for the Lord of all things is grudging with knowledge, and those who wish it must perforce storm the heavens to seize it, no matter the cost. Hear, then, the secret history of Alexander called the Great, and how he won the right to own the world, for all that he did not long keep it.
All was in readiness for Alexander to ride forth from the hills of Macedonia and to fulfill the task he had inherited from his earthly father, King Philip. For the Greeks had become decadent and sat upon the treasures of their art and poetry and philosophy like a sleepy dragon from the old myths. And Alexander knew himself chosen and commissioned by his divine father to spread the light of that culture to all peoples under the sun. But he knew well that the darkness does not recede easily or willingly, and so he had marshaled a force of warriors such as no man had yet seen, not even for the Argive siege of Illium. He had enticed his men with dreams of glory that history would more than fulfill, and all were eager to embark upon a crusade that should change the world. Hence the astonishment of his generals when, early on, Alexander directed that progress towards the Dardanelles should be delayed while he turned aside through Corinth for that he sought to visit a single individual. "I must see the wonder of the world men call Diogenes! For it is said he is something greater than a god: he is a true man."
Now Diogenes was the most contrary of men and held every institution of state and family in contempt as a trap laid by fools to ensure their own misery. He himself took for his model the freedom of the roving dog, whence he was called the Cynic. He cared not for the honor or repute of men, and it is said he exceeded even his master Socrates in plain and bold speech, heedless of the risk. Diogenes went about naked, or nearly so, a wooden tub his only shelter, a walking staff for his sole possession. He had the habit of carrying about a lighted lantern in the daytime, looking, as he said, for a true soul. This he had not found even in Plato, Socrates' heir, for he exchanged many a salty quip with him. Some of these had Alexander heard from his own master, Aristotle, the successor of Plato. And so Alexander had resolved that he must see this Diogenes for himself.
Thus it happened that, having received word from some of the much-surprised loungers in the agora at Corinth that Diogenes was to be found atop a local hill called the Craneum, Alexander and his bodyguards made their way on horseback to the place. Finding the spindle-shanked old man, Alexander dismounted and strode toward the figure, whose back was turned to him, warming his old bones in the sun. At once the shadow of the conqueror loomed over Diogenes, who then turned about.
"I am Alexander, and you, apparently, are Diogenes!"
"It is true that I am Diogenes. And as I know no one so foolish as to take the blame for Alexander's deeds if he did not deserve it, I assume you are truly he."
His companions saw an awe arising in their king's wide eyes, and he asked Diogenes, "Do you fear me?"
To which the old man replied, "Are you good, or are you evil?"
Alexander at once answered, "Why, I am good!"
Diogenes said to him, "From the good, then, what have I to fear?"
Hearing this, the conqueror exclaimed, "O Diogenes, you are indeed everything they say! It is a great boon for me to have met you these few moments, and I would return the favor. Say what I may give you, even to half my kingdom!" Now it was the king's men whose eyes widened with alarm. "What would you have me do for you?"
And the Cynic answered, "Step out of my light, if you please."
For his part, Alexander rejoiced, exclaiming, "Were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes!" Then, kneeling before the old man, Alexander ordered his guards, "Men, hail your king!" And a moment later, "Let us go hence."
Before many more days had elapsed, Alexander had led his host across the Dardanelles. All Asia now stretched before him, holding in store wonders and treasures, both material and intangible. From here he might have proceeded in his choice of directions to engage the Emperor Darius. His advisers urged one course of action and another, each with his own plan to overcome the Persians. But once more, the son of Zeus-Amon would not be turned aside from the divinely ordained path he alone could see before him. And he knew his first stop must be the temple of Zeus the King in the tiny Phrygian kingdom of Gordia. As all men know, the fane of Zeus Basileus housed a wondrous curiosity, the Gordian Knot, which, the oracle had decreed, must be undone by the fated ruler of all Asia and might be undone by no one else.
It was here, in elder days, that the Phrygian chiefs had convened to deliberate which among their clans should next rule their wild country. It was of secret prophecy that the land should find its ruler in the first man who approached the town with a humble wagon. And such a man, Midas by name, chanced to interlope upon their council. In this manner he cut the process short and was hailed as the rightful sovereign. He dedicated his wagon to Zeus and tied it to a pole in the courtyard of the god's temple. It was, I say, a marvel, as no end of the rope was to be seen, and it appeared to loop and to turn dozens, even hundreds, of times. The Gordian Knot had long since proven the bafflement of many a learned mathematician.
But kingdoms have ever been decided by blood and iron, not by holy oracles, though the one may prove after the fact to have been the vehicle for the other. So Alexander's generals urged him not to bother with what must turn out a needless embarrassment. No rational man might blame him for failing to solve a puzzle of which so many savants had despaired, but if he tried and failed, would the masses not begin to whisper that Alexander had failed the test of prophecy and forfeited any right to the realm he might nonetheless take by force? Better not to prod such a hornet's nest, they said. But he would not be swayed, and so he dispatched messengers to the local priests, that they should prepare to receive him as befits the son of their patron deity.
The day came, and Alexander dismounted mighty Baucephalus at the vanguard of his entourage. Before his presence the priests and attendants of Zeus' temple bowed low, as they might have done had it been the Sky-Lord himself who had come to call. But if Alexander's men seemed ill at ease, the priests appeared to be no less so. It took no great imagination to surmise their fears; suppose the ambitious young king failed the test: with what violence might he vent his frustration? Would he dispense with all witnesses and put about the report that he had in fact untied the great knot? But like all priests, these were well-trained in silken amenities and smooth tongues, and so their words suggested naught but pleasure to be so honored, together with sublime gravity to attend in this manner the sure fulfillment of prophecy.
"And now, where is the famous Knot?" demanded Alexander, waving aside further preliminaries.
The lesser priests deferred to their chief, the mitred hierophant of the place, who bobbed his bearded head, spreading his open hands apart in a semicircle. "If my lord please, the ordeal of the Knot is something of a mystery, a rite of initiation and testing. If you would be so kind as to follow me in the footsteps of your predecessors. And may your divine Father grant that you succeed where they failed."
It was a large company that shuffled through the nave of the Phrygian temple, a structure little different from the plan of most such places save for a larger than usual altar space. Passing this by, they proceeded through the chancel and through an archway opening upon a sharply declining ramp into the damp darkness below. Alexander and the high priest were each accompanied by a number of retainers, and the crowd had to stretch into a thinner column to navigate the tunnel, for such it was proving to be. Out of instinctive mutual mistrust, the larger mass distilled into individual pairs, each with a soldier and a priest side by side. Finally they reached a level landing. "From here the king must advance alone," announced the high priest.
But Alexander's second in command answered, "I like it not, your majesty! I smell treachery, as is ever the way with priests!"
"I will ignore your blasphemy," replied the haughty hierophant. "But these are the rules of the ordeal, which we did not press upon you. You sought it out. And will you now have all men whispering that mighty Alexander sought special treatment to make the contest easier?" The contempt in his voice was scarcely concealed.
Alexander motioned for silence. "The priest is right, Antiochus. Besides, what has the son of Zeus-Amon to fear? Yesterday, you yourself dismissed the whole business as rustic mummery and old wives' tales! Shall the Emperor of the World quail at such?"
"It is the trickery of mortals I fear, my lord! But our swords shall keep careful watch upon these hosts of ours. Gods go with you, sire!" And so they all said, as two of the priests produced ancient-looking keys and unfastened a complex system of locks and bolts that held the ancient door fast. With tortured creaking, the massive thing, looking to be made of petrified wood bracketed by inlaid iron bars and hasps, came slowly opened. It was plain that no man had sought the ordeal of the Knot for many a year.
"The true ruler of all Asia will need no further preparation," intoned the priest theatrically, "nor will preparation help any lesser man."
Alexander half-expected them to require him to surrender his sword, but perhaps the wily clerics knew the limits they might not trespass. Or perhaps what awaited him was of such a nature that a sword would prove of no moment. He looked round at his men, then strode through the portal into a darkness mitigated only by high and remote torches.
As his eyes adjusted, already used to the shadows of temple and tunnel, Alexander scanned the interior for some shape that might be the famous Knot. He knew not how large or small it might be, since great complexity need not require huge size. Ought there not be some dais, some display? In the dimness ahead there did now appear to be some sort of raised platform or table. More than one of them. As he approached them, he realized where he was. He stood in an unspeakably ancient crypt. Brushing the dust away from the surface of one great stone sarcophagus, he squinted to read the inscription by the distant torch light and found he could not. It was written in some tongue he did not know, perhaps ancient Phrygian or Scythian. The king felt no untoward panic, as a lesser man might have. He had heard of such things, such features of initiation rites. He assumed the point of twilit passage through the hall of the dead was to confront the initiate with the fact of his own mortality, of the fleeting character of the glory he sought. Well, it was a lesson he had long since taken to heart, a truth he did not scorn. His immediate concern, then, was simply to find the way to pass beyond into the next chamber or tunnel and see what the next stage of the process might require of him.
Thus engaged, he stepped as quickly as he judged safe, his vision still hampered in the prevalent darkness. He thought he detected the outline of an alcove ahead, perhaps sheltering the door he sought. But before he had covered any real distance toward it, he stood stock-still at the sound of unexpected motion. What he heard was not the skittering of such vermin as might be expected to prowl the place, but rather a peculiar, whispered rasping, as of stone upon stone. And now it could be heard coming from more than one direction! And suddenly the place was filled with the upright forms of men climbing out of the stone boxes they had been hiding in, lying in ambush!
What a fool he had been! His men had been right! It was all a trick staged by his adversaries, and now he would pay with his life! Up ahead, he glimpsed one of the scattered sources of flickering light and ran in the direction of it. He knew he would have the best chance to take a few of his assailants with him if he could see them coming. As he ran, he noticed with puzzlement that no one sped up to forestall him. The men, of whom there now appeared to be about a score, came toward him at a distinctly leisurely pace. Plainly they were unconcerned, rightly confident in their numbers. Well, the odds were indeed unequal, but perhaps not so unequal as they supposed! Rural temple guards would likely be a poor match for one with battle skills honed on many a fevered field of combat. And if the conquest of all Asia were to abort here and now, he would enjoy this last frenzy of battle lust! He began to slice the air with his blade in glad anticipation.
Alexander's battle-thirst evaporated as soon as the first of his attackers emerged into the circle of the torch's wan illumination. This was no guard! Nor even a living man! What came at him was but the shell of a man, a feeble-looking frame upon which hung the remnants of some ancient armor and battle harness. The eyes were dried, sightless pits, the leathery hands now become one with their sword hilts. What unnatural vigor set their grotesque arms to slashing he could not guess. And more of them were coming, crowding against one another, a poor phalanx! Swallowing his disgust and horror, Alexander exploded into motion, hacking the first of the scarecrows before him to fragments. The thought came to him unbidden that these creatures must be what remained of previous seekers of the Gordian Knot, their failure binding them to serve as its guardians throughout eternity, adding to their number anyone so foolish as to repeat their ambition. But he was not eager to join their elite ranks, and so he fought on. There was no blood, save for that of the few cuts he received in the charade. In mere minutes he was surrounded by a litter of quivering bits of desiccated flesh, still set vainly dancing by the black sorcery that had brought them forth.
The young king stood gasping for breath, shrugging off the superstitious horror that threatened to paralyze him. For this, he knew, was the true nature of the test he had just passed. It was no mere physical assault, but rather a siege threatening to topple his very reason. But he was the son of Zeus-Amon, and no ordinary man!
He reached the alcove. There was a door, this time an ordinary door. Rather than burst through it heedlessly, he paused to listen against the rotting wood, then again at the widening crack as he pushed it gradually open. Once more there was sound, seemingly indicating that his passage had aroused the attention of something within. He pushed it all the way open and peered into the deeper darkness inside. Before proceeding farther, he turned back and retrieved the nearest of the mounted torches, though he had to climb up onto one of the sarcophagi and leap toward the bracket, grasping the torch, which very nearly sputtered out as he landed painfully, trying to shield it from the impact. But he wrapped some of the strips of rotten cloth from one of the shattered corpses around the tip to provide more of a wick, then returned, ears open, to the next room.
He could hear the sound more distinctly now, as if whatever made it were coming slowly closer. What manner of creature this might be, he could not surmise from the strange dragging, twisting sound it made as it advanced. He thought it best to advance to meet this new enemy rather than wait for it to find him. Ascertaining its direction as best he could, amid the oddly clashing echoes, Alexander thrust the torch before him, sword upraised. The thing was vast, and he could illumine but parts of it at a time. And what he saw only added to the mystery, for he seemed to see limbs and features of wholly different and divergent species each time he managed to catch a bit of it in his light. Here was an elephant leg, there a maw bristling with asymmetrical fangs and tusks, yet again contours suggesting massive bulk. The most consistent glimpses were of an unstable heap, a wriggling mass of ropy tendrils and tentacles, whipping, coiling, winding and unwinding, wrapping themselves around one another like a nest of snakes. But it seemed to move as a single entity. And then he realized what horror the benign myth of King Midas' rope puzzle was meant to conceal! For this was none other than the Gordian Knot!
At first the thing sent out only tentative feelers in his direction, and these were easily avoided. But as it made sure of its prey, the sinuous limbs began to shoot out like the predatory tongue of a frog catching a fly. Alexander flinched as one raked his skin, abrasively and stickily. He chopped at it, easily severed it. But each such wound he opened released a polluting jet of reeking ichor. The scent, though unearthly, was somehow familiar. In a moment he had it: the shambling wrecks of ancient warriors he had so lately cut down had borne something of this unsettling stench. The logic taught him so painstakingly by his tutor Aristotle told him that it was the baptism in this foul stuff that had secured the dumb service of the previous interlopers and prolonged it beyond the grave. Thus he dared neither butcher the entity nor allow it to smother and strangle him amid its octopoid members. What alternative remained?
He sprang back and away from the creature he had been so ignorantly eager to meet. And now he found his position had become more dangerous still, for the inhuman opponent had begun flinging dislodged bits of ancient masonry at him, and he dodged with difficulty, unable to see them coming until they were practically upon him. And for all this, he planned madly, discarding one half-formed alternative after another between gasped breaths.
And all at once the word of old Diogenes came to him, as if spoken by an inner voice: "Step out of my light, if you please." The light! What could be the import of that? He thought back: the tentacled thing had not rushed directly upon him, though sword strokes seemed not to hurt it seriously, and its shifting bulk could have thrown itself upon him. Its manifest sense of aim showed it to be nyctaloptic. It was a thing native to darkness; that much was clear. The ancient Phrygian priests must have built their nameless temple here because of the presence of the subterrene entity. Its servitors would have yielded to the conquering Greeks, who however must have found themselves unable to ignore or suppress the local worship of the monster, merely masking it under the name of Zeus. Alexander thought of the large altar area and knew the thing must require sacrifices, both numerous and frequent.
All this implied that the thing was confined to the cavern he now shared with it, though they could not be too far below the surface. It must shun the light, else it must long ago have burst forth to ravage the Phrygian countryside even as legend had it that the terrible Qom-maq, hideous bane of King Minos, had done in the dawn of antiquity. Perhaps such creatures were the horrible sons of Uranos that he had long ago imprisoned beneath the earth for fear of their savagery. Mayhap it might be turned back or even destroyed if he could think of some way to maneuver it into the path of wholesome sunlight. But of that commodity there was precious little available.
As Alexander was soon to learn, those he had left behind, both friends and suspected foes, had not been idle in his absence. For as soon as they returned to the temple nave, the king's men were startled to behold the eager faces of a whole troop of priests and armed hirelings awaiting them with weapons drawn.
"Enough of this charade!" cried the hierophant of Zeus, or of whatever it was that lurked below. "Take them!"
The Macedonians were outnumbered, but, again, skill told the tale. At the cost of only a few of their own men, Alexander's troops quickly made their mastery known. The fatal seriousness of their error was stamped upon each doomed face as the priests and their henchmen sank before their intended victims like harvested wheat. In no time, the floor of the fane was awash in blood. And much of this had found its way to certain channels carved in the floor adjacent to the large altar stone, an arrangement common to temples, save that the excess blood usually ran off into gutters and ran outside. In this case, however, the crimson streams bubbled down a set of drains at the foot of the corners of the altar stone. And as it pooled there momentarily, the blood began to trace the beginnings of the outline of what looked very much like a trap door, as if the altar itself might give way and swing open upon some nether void if one knew the mechanism. To this, Antiochus, Alexander's chief lieutenant, called the attention of the others. But it was only a momentary curiosity. A second later they had wiped their gory blades on the priestly cassocks of the treacherous dead and were returning to the tunnel.
Alexander was beginning to tire, despite the combat lust that had enveloped him. The constant care he had to take in order not to stumble over a hundred unseen obstacles was sapping his strength. He was no more the clean cyclone of motion he had been some minutes before. Unable to maintain the momentum, he was reduced to running, changing direction every few seconds, to elude the threshing tentacles of the Gordian devil-god. He could see the place better now, surprised that his eyes could adjust to the darkness to such a bat-like degree. This meant he could move more swiftly, less clumsily. He paused a moment to catch his breath when he felt a raindrop, then another, and another, spatter upon his head! That seemed singularly strange, and he placed his hand to his wet scalp, then tasted the moisture. Salty! This was blood! He surmised instantly that his men had been betrayed, ambushed, most likely sacrificed to the very being he now sought to evade. What a fool he had been to bring them here!
But wait... why would they sacrifice his men if they had set the monster upon himself? Perhaps his troops had gained the upper hand after all! In any event it was now plain to him that his only possible path of egress led upward. So he began feverishly to look for some way up the shaft, the presence of which he had now become aware. If he could reach the altar, there might be some way through it and to the surface. It could not be that bloody tricklings were sufficient to feed the thing; he must find the shoot or shaft down which the sacrificed carcasses would tumble.
There were a few dislodged blocks against the foot of the walls, but these afforded no real advantage, and here came his nemesis. A sudden inspiration made Alexander wait a few seconds till more of the massive bulk was closer to him, closer to the wall. Then he ran and jumped onto it, hoping he would not simply break through the greasy bladder of its body and sink into its deadly pustulence. He surmised that, if it dragged itself over stony cavern floors, it must have a tough exterior, and it was even so. For he found himself bouncing off, springing a few scant feet aloft. This was not much help, but it was better than the loathsome entity's disgusting embrace.
As he allowed himself to crash painfully against the dank wall of the shaft, he scrambled madly to gain some purchase upon any possible out-thrust handhold. He had grown up climbing Balkan mountains and learned to find hand- and footholds where none first seemed apparent, and this was not much different. He managed to cling, albeit tenuously, to the surface like a fly fleeing the swatter. A meaty tentacle reached for him, slapping the wall with a surprisingly solid impact as it landed inches away from him.
Alexander could see now that the wall surface had been lined with skulls, human ones. Some were real and crumbling with age. The tentacle blow had dislodged two or three of these, but then their cavities formed better footholds for him. Other skulls had been carved from the rock, and miraculously, he had grasped hold of two of these. He began to climb, desperately careful not to rest his weight upon one of the inset globes of decaying bone. The questing tendrils ceased. No more blows came. But the air changed. He felt the subtle air pressure of proximity. And the air became more stifling--the thing was following him! Oozing up the shaft after him! It was slow, its locomotion in such close quarters a process of stuffing its plastic bulk into the tight space and shifting its mass till it slowly rolled upward. Alexander suppressed his rising panic and rechanneled it into cold determination. Gone was his opportunity for a valiant death in combat. Unless he could get through some opening above him, his fate was to be crushed like an insect as the sand bag of a creature smothered him, then squashed his broken form to gory pulp.
After what seemed, but could not have been, hours, he had reached the top. Now bracing himself as best he could with shaking muscles on fire with over-fatigue, he unsheathed his sword and jammed it into the thin lines he saw marking the outlines of what must have been the altar stone atop the sacrificial shaft. He saw there was little chance of forcing the monolithic thing open this way. But he had to try.
As he tried again and again, with no visible result, he was chilled to glance down and see the tips of feelers reaching up mere inches from his face. He had decided what to do. He would spend his last seconds putting the sword to its proper use, no matter what the thing's foul juices might do to him. He would do his best to shred the creature's noisome vitals even as it consumed him. Had not Marduk done the same when he slew Tiamat? He yelled, "Come, then, devil! You will devour a royal feast today, but it shall be your last!" He began to smile a desperate smile.
And then he heard... voices! Above him! They sounded as if far away, but he knew that must be the result of the thickness of the stone between them.
"It is the voice of the king! He yet lives!" Better still, one could hear the sounds of some kind of scuffling. They must have been searching for the mechanism to open the shaft. As he later learned, Antiochus had swiftly searched through the heap of priestly bodies and found a man still clinging to life by playing dead. With a sword at his throat he spilled the secret quickly. And now strong hands were reaching down to his, pulling him free of the encroaching limbs of the Gordian god. Alexander cried out with anguish as he saw a tentacle whip around the arm of one of his rescuers and pull him down into a razor-toothed maw he had not seen a moment before. And the thing continued its oozing motion--it was obviously headed for the freedom of the shadowed sanctuary where, Alexander supposed, the wary priests had never dared allow it to emerge.
"You men, get atop the temple dome, around the sky light!" These pagan altars were all built with a chimney at the summit, through which sacrificial smoke might ascend to heavens. "Take sledges, axes, anything at hand, and enlarge that opening! We have to have light in here! As strong as possible! Now!"
For the next few moments, as the monstrous sack of unguessable organs and acids was emerging into the upper world, Alexander and the remnant of his men stood and watched. Aghast and slack-jawed as the hill of knotted octopus arms loomed above them in the dim barn of the temple, they were grateful as the thing at last began to feel the impact of a rain of debris falling from the demolition of the temple roof above it. But, as Alexander expected, the falling tiles and masonry did the thing no harm, bouncing harmlessly off its rubbery exterior even as he had. But, unless his eyes deceived him, the blinding cascade of sunlight was having an effect upon it: the entity began to lose the leprous pallor untold centuries of darkness had given it. It began to flush red, then purple, then to smoke. At this, Alexander motioned the rest of the men to flee. He covered his own nose and mouth with a fold of cloth and resolved to witness the end of the matter. But the thing from the shaft was sublimating directly into the air now, rendering it toxic, so Alexander, too, ran coughing, his nose suddenly bleeding from unknown poisons the thing's instantaneous decomposition had released. He saw enough, however: he saw the thing having begun to reduce to foaming slime, then coruscating oil, which poured back down the shaft it had come from like sewage down a drain.
As soon as they were all outside, gulping in great drafts of clean air, Alexander commanded: "One more chore, my friends! Burn down this pile of horror and evil! My Father's name shall no more be blasphemed on its account!"
Moments later, they stood gazing at the leaping flames. The townspeople had gathered to watch. If any of them blamed Alexander for it, they were wise enough to keep quiet. But Antiochus broke the silence: "Master, we tried to open the great door through which you first entered that labyrinth, but we could not find the keys on the bodies of any of the priests! Then it was that we returned to the altar, hoping to find your body beneath it."
"Blessed are you," announced the son of Zeus-Amon to his men, "for you have stood by me in my hour of danger, and as my Father has given me a kingdom, so I, too, grant you kingdoms after me. And blessed be Diogenes, for if it were not for Diogenes, I should no longer be Alexander!"
Now Alexander did many other deeds which the memory of man has forgotten, but if one were to write all of them down, I suspect that poor mankind would not sleep so easily thereafter. But of the truth of the Gordian Knot, and of how Alexander prevailed in the ordeal, I, Carnamagos, testify. Amen.
Robert M Price
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