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Mind Lords of Lemuria
Robert M. Price
1. Jungle Silver
The handful of kroter-mounted soldiers thundered into the glade, the intense sunlight of olden Lemuria mottling their harsh features through the overhanging foliage. Only half their original number, these survivors were, on the whole, neither stronger nor cannier than their late companions, just luckier--with perhaps one exception. Command of the unit had fallen to a young barbarian from the frozen peaks of Valkarth, a complete stranger to these climes, but seemingly indifferent to the stings of clinging vine and bird-sized mosquito alike. His name was Thongor, and some months earlier he had entered the service of the fat Sark of Shembis, the tyrant Arzang Pome. The ways of civilized men seemed no less than madness to the strapping Valkarthan, accustomed as he was to the barest code of survival in a hostile world. But the decadent Pomeís madness was real, even by civilizationís standards. His madness was a greed for silver. Hushed rumor had it that the Sark required the precious metal for some unspeakable alchemical rites aimed at securing eternal youth. And, while believable, these whispers might be a simple cloak for insatiable greed where the metal was concerned. Perhaps the jowly monarch just had a liking for it. At any rate, it was his silver lust that had sent this mixed band of palace guards and mercenaries on what thus far had been a futile chase into unmapped jungle. †††††
Some wandering mage had sold the Sark a wivesí tale of a lost city buried in the depth of the lotifer forest, a rich and proud city anciently whelmed for its overweening pride by the Nineteen Gods. Surely a city so proud must have shared the oblivious rulerís imprudent lust for precious metal, and so he sought to emulate their crime, risking their doom. If, that is, there had ever been such a place, a half-fabulous city with no name even the itinerant storyteller could remember. But greed lets no chance go unopened, and here they were, most of the men sick and disgusted. Their commander, a high-ranking member of the elite guard, had already perished from snakebite, several others from deadly fruit. Wild beasts had thus far remained at a distance, but as the menís numbers shrank, this might well change.
Thongor had assumed command, and no one with an objection had any longer the strength to challenge him. He would do his best to watch out for the men. He liked not the bargain the Sark had struck: how many men might be spent in search of superfluous loot that probably didnít even exist? He decided he would press on but a bit further into the rank growth, far enough to justify the report that a search had turned up nothing. Then he would turn back and take his chances as the bearer of bad tidings. He explained his scheme to the men, and none gainsaid him, all eager to be back in the Shembis wine shops and brothels if they should live so long.
††††††††††† Such thoughts occupied him as Thongor guided the frontmost of the mounts carefully through the strange terrain. It suddenly grew thicker again, slowing them down to a maddening crawl. He congratulated himself on having avoided a path grown thick at the far end with spiky vines, but as he turned left, the company raggedly following along...
disaster closed like a vise! At once there was nothing underfoot. A hunterís trap, he thought momentarily as his stomach lurched with the unexpected descent. But the fall continued too long, and it was just before he crashed to solid floor beneath that he realized he had found what he sought. The vines and bushes of a thousand years had silently covered the tunnel mouth leading to a great underground complex.
2. Caverns of Madness
It was not long before consciousness returned, and thanks to his wilderness-bred instincts, it returned like a pouncing snow-vandar. His head ached, but Thongorís full black mane, square-cut across his forehead, had cushioned the blow. His silver-plated helmet was nowhere to be seen. He rose up on one elbow, turning in every direction, trying to pierce the shadows with his curious golden eyes, to see how his men fared, men who had made a mistake in following him. Thongor cursed himself as he paced across what seemed an extensive chamber, stooping over body after body, finding a broken neck here, a fatal concussion there. All he could find were dead, but not all were yet accounted for. Of a sudden he saw a trace of lambence, a strangely colored light shining round a corner of the cavern wall. Had the other survivors, and there could be no more than four, he estimated, had they awakened before him and gone on without him, deeper into the shaft? It seemed unlikely.†
††††††††††† Tightening his sword belt and choosing a dagger from one of the recumbent forms, Thongor made for the light. But before he could round the corner, crouched in a stance anticipating attack, he was surprised by an advancing form that seemed to throw itself upon him like a vast blanket. Dry like a snake, yet viscously unstable like some jellyfish, the thing sought to smother him, but he whipped his longsword from its sheath like lightning and hacked desperately at that which held him. It bled not, nor made any sound. But a faint buzzing, of which the barbarian had been but subliminally aware up to now, began to heighten in pitch and urgency. Thongor ripped and sliced, tearing with one hand as he cut with the other, but the living wave of alien flesh began to get the better of him, attaching to his face, cutting off his breath. For the second time in under an hour, he lost consciousness.
††††††††††† This time he awoke to the buzzing, easily loud enough that he could not ignore it. He tried to move. Frustrated in this, he next tried at least to gain his bearings, focusing his eyes. This was difficult. He seemed to see but a pinkish blur, though there was a hint of motion somewhere within the roseate haze. It registered that the hue was nothing natural, but the same as he had seen reflected earlier on the cavern wall. It emanated from no single source, yet it filled the very air around him, and its strength extended no farther than mere inches beyond a great circular tube that held his immobile form. As his eyes became accustomed to the weird haze, his peripheral vision revealed the arrangement of four other containers, presumably like his own, in a rough semicircle against the irregular cavern wall. At some point in the distant past, some one or some thing had troubled to smooth the rocky surface, yet without bothering to straighten the natural walls. Thongorís world knew a crude version of glass, though mirrors were usually constructed of polished silver. He had never seen the like of what held him captive now, a perfectly smooth, seemingly quite thick cylinder of transparent shielding. And it was the same with the others. The tale of the wandering mage had been no idle tale, then, though whatever treasure might lurk here would seem to be far too costly to recover. Thongor thought with grim irony that he would be a rich man to escape this place with the treasure of his life.
††††††††††† He thought he could make out the blurred lines of the remaining companions within the other tubes. Three he had not known well, but the fourth and the easiest to recognize because of his short stature, was one Tam Tavis, a boy too young for the dangers of this ill-fated mission, but headstrong enough that he would not be left behind. Thongor had seen in the strapping youth a reflection of himself in earlier years, a boy budding into manhood quickly, with instincts and reflexes, not to mention precocious strength, that would one day serve him well on the battlefield. There was no school for adventure better than adventure itself, as he had learned amply, so he had put up no real opposition when the lad had pleaded to be taken along. Now Thongor rued his decision. He had long ago lost count of the number of foemenís lives he had taken. But it was a new and distasteful thing for him to count the squandered lives of friends.
††††††††††† The Valkarthanís golden eyes were brought back front and center by the sudden appearance of that alien entity he had fought and failed to defeat. His brow flared into a fever of rage as he traced the heavy, shifting motions of the shapeless silhouette before him, his temperature rising even faster with the chagrin of defeat. And for all this, his spine began at once to tingle as he seemed to feel the creeping tendrils of a foreign consciousness entering and mingling with his own. A rising panic abruptly ceased, however, as his mindís eye began to gape at vast scenes crystallizing from a mist of seeming forgetfulness, as if he were awakening from a long sleep and coming to himself, a self he had forgotten he possessed.
††††††††††† He knew it not, but Thongorís square jaw fell slack and drooling as his vacant eyes gazed down the centuries, through the memories of his inhuman host. Together the unlikely pair beheld a great vista of which discredited legends spoke: the infinitely ancient migration through the cosmic aethyr of a legion of sentient comets. From a neighboring sphere they came, the immemorial Children of the Fire Mist, so designated in the forbidden Testament of Xanthu, ostensibly salvaged from the collapsing fanes of elder Mu. They had arrived on the new-made earth, seeking among the myriad forms of burgeoning life some spark of intelligence that they might fan into flame, perhaps out of sheer benevolence, perhaps for recondite reasons of their own. The Lords of the Fire Mist had the uncanny ability of transferring their own intellects, incorporeal as they were, into whatever physical forms they chose, so long as these possessed at least some malleable mindstuff. They sought by this means to heighten the faculties of these crude beings, to hasten their evolution to full awareness. The first objects of their attentions were the scarcely sentient pseudopodic creatures whose likeness Thongor had lately battled. With these beings they eventually won great success, their mottled blue-green rubbery forms at length evolving into the mighty blue-skinned Rmoahal warriors of the southern plains. But these proved too mighty for the Mind Lords to dominate. They had done their work too well. After long years they ventured another experiment in what Thongor would have deemed blackest sorcery. The Sons of the Fire Mist chose a species of small, tailed mammals, bulge-eyed and bulb-fingered, tree-swingers, bug-eaters. Thongorís vision, which falsely seemed a memory, traced the progress of these creatures up the ladder of apedom to nobler form and feature, and he knew he had witnessed the very origin of his own tribe: Man.†
††††††††††† Thongor now knew, and indeed took for granted, that the loathsome form of the thing he had fought and which now shared his very soul was a specimen of that earlier, long-ago age of experiment, before the furry branch-swingers took their first involuntary steps to humanity. Here was one of the first intelligent beings from earthís dawn age. How long had it bided the ages? He sensed a great anger and a greater... covetousness. This one of the archaean Mind Lords of Lemuria wanted what he, unlike his ancient colleagues, had been denied: a fully human form to inhabit. Their ancient mission had succeeded. Wisdom had been ignited in the breasts of earthly creatures. Had the rest of the Children of the Fire Mist abandoned the planet again, returned to their adjacent sphere? If so, then why had they left this one behind? Thongor found he could share none of the creatureís memory at this point. Here the lone Mind Lord became guarded, perhaps from ancient habit, when he needed to shield certain heretical or treasonous thoughts from his more enlightened fellows?††
3. Alien Flesh
The Valkarthan lost consciousness again, instantly, as one snuffed out a temple candle. When he again awakened, no sense of the passage of dreamtime betrayed how long he had been out. He knew at once that the paralysis had left him, and he made to flex his limbs. His initial thought was surprise that there was no ache--until he beheld in horror members which answered to his commands, albeit clumsily, but were not his own! Worse yet, they were not even remotely human. Of course he knew himself the prisoner of his rugose and monstrous host, more truly and damnably a prisoner than he had been when paralyzed. He was back in the clear tube, and his ungainly tentacles thrashed helplessly against the smooth, concave surface. He found he was able to see what transpired without, but his sight was somehow different. Nothing seemed to point in any particular direction more than another. Relative height and width fluctuated. Colors shimmered into and out of the familiar spectrum range.
††††††††††† His human form was free--and occupied! He saw the image of Thongor of Valkarth admiring himself in a mirror, as if a man should consider a new robe or suit of armor! Gradually, his living image drew forth its scabbarded longsword, again belted to the hip, and made clumsy swipes with it through the stagnant air of the cavern. But the thing that held his body hostage was rapidly accustoming itself to the reflexes and instincts of its new home. Thongorís body as well as his mind had learned his martial skills, and that made them available to the usurper.
††††††††††† But it appeared to work the other way, too! Thongor at once felt more in control of the repulsive alien form he had inherited. He was for the moment no less a captive, but he knew that things need to change but slightly before new possibilities begin to form. Nor was this the only change.
††††††††††† The Mind Lord in Thongorís body now held the blade in one hand and manipulated some glowing studs on a chest-high metal surface. The mist filling one of his menís cylinders began to dissipate, drawn back through tiny holes in the base. The man within began to shake himself awake, lacking the paralysis Thongor had experienced. Then the cylinder retreated into a recess in the cavern shadows above, leaving the man free and gasping a lung full of the stale but welcome air. His eyes visibly brightened as he recognized him whom he took for his brave commander. Inside Thongorís prison tube, he could hear no sounds, but he saw that the soldier spoke pleasantly to his commanderís image, awaited a reply, looked puzzled--then crumpled with his lifeís blood jetting in a geyser from the severed stump of his head.
††††††††††† The helpless mind of the captive Valkarthan raged in impotent fury as he saw the same performance repeated by the incarnated Mind Lord, who seemed to imagine he honed his battle skills by similarly butchering the rest of the Sarkís dazed troops. No doubt one and all perished thinking Thongor had betrayed and murdered them! He vowed his foe should pay dearly for this outrage!
††††††††††† But now the false Thongor made to open the prison-tube of the last of the men, young Tam Tavis! The blue-green sheath that was his body shook with unaccustomed-- human-- fury; Thongor knew he must somehow find a way to prevent this final atrocity.
4. Thongor against Thongor!
He saw a single, dim chance and acted more by instinct than by design. Thongorís mind had begun to feel, as if by the acquisition of a new sense, that it could mimic some of the mental feats of the thing whose alien form he now wore. He focused his oddly distorted vision upon his own stolen form, but it remained obtuse to his probing. The entity must have taken precautions against the trick Thongor now tried. But the barbarian would not be daunted, not with his young friendís life at stake. He focused next upon the awakening form of Tam Tavis. Thongor had a dreamlike apprehension of running, exerting himself in a race to reach some far point as soon as he might, straining every nerve. And then he was beyond the physical form he had occupied--and into that of Tam Tavis!
††††††††††† Thongor knew he was taking several risks at once, not the least of which was that the boy, awakening inside the terrible, utterly non-human form of the Mind Lord, would instantly go quite mad. Already in his brief career of adventuring, Thongor had beheld a number of sights to shake the soul, though mind-transference with this awful being might have unhinged him without the shared memory-vision of the Mind Lord to make sense of the events for him. And he knew Tam Tavis had no such advantage. Gorm grant the boy would awaken with the creatureís brain-instincts as a safety net.
††††††††††† For his own part, Thongor could not help rejoicing in wearing a more accustomed form, blood pumping through muscled arms and legs from a central heart (for the adepts of ancient Lemuria knew already this much of the bodyís systems). He was shorter now, but his perspective was much more familiar than the strangely filtered perceptions of the thing from the planet Venus had been. There was but little sluggishness in the ladís limbs as the adrenalin drove out the last vestiges of the alien sleep gas.
††††††††††† The black-maned, golden-eyed giant facing him appeared to freeze for a moment, surprised, but quickly making sense of what had happened. It was plain he had not deemed the barbarian or his race so capable. In that moment of his foeís hesitation, Thongor darted forward to grasp the hilt of the dagger he had earlier picked up from the fallen body of a soldier. His mighty opponent had not expected the move, just looked at the blade in Tam Tavisí hand and smiled, raising his own great-bladed sword.
††††††††††† The two men paced and circled, the younger crouching like a hunting vandar. Both had blades extended, and the disparity between the two weapons daunted Thongor not. Indeed, he feared his own prowess with the blade, not daring to contrive to kill his opponent--himself!† Which would prevail: his strength, or his skill?
††††††††††† The first blow was that of the Mind Lord, a clumsy but powerful thrust, which Tam Tavisí body, agile as a cricket, easily sidestepped. ďGo ahead! Flee me, human! I have waited all these kalpas, and I can spare a few minutes more!Ē The intonation was not quite right, as if the thing inside were only beginning to get used to the human vocal apparatus.
††††††††††† ďFool!Ē the Lemurian youth gasped with the exertion, ďYou have waited so long only for death!Ē He knew how laughable that sentiment must seem. Even if he were able to overcome the massive form whose death-dealing capacities he knew better than anyone else, it were mere foolishness to seek to kill his own body! Better to find some way to get it back--if he could evade its increasingly skillful blows!
††††††††††† As he considered his next move, Thongor noticed that the amorphous body of the Mind Lord was now flailing with agitation. Plainly, the mind of Tam Tavis had awakened in its new abode and liked it not! But was the young mind also going mad? Was it as Thongor had feared? If so, here would be another innocent death charged to his account. But he dared not entertain such thoughts at the moment if he hoped at least to save the body of his young friend, to say naught of his own soul.
††††††††††† He saw now that the boyís agility exceeded his own, just as his weight was much less than Thongorís. New stratagems suggested themselves like eager students in a classroom. Thongor took advantage of his borrowed skills to leap upward and grasp hold of a fang-like stalactite. He hoped to gain a momentís breather this way, but he had not counted on the slippery nitre and began at once to slip. So be it; he would come down on his opponentís head. His own form stood uncertainly below, trying to spot his vanished quarry amid the dense shadows, seeing his sudden descent too late. If only the younger man might knock the older unconscious without further damage!
††††††††††† But the mighty frame of Thongor of Valkarth shrugged off the blow and assumed a fighting stance once more. Thongorís mind felt keenly the lack of his great barrel chest and ample lungs, for he could not now replenish his wind so quickly. He noticed from the corner of his eye one of his menís shields that had been sent bouncing and rolling by the initial impact of his fall and made its way into the present chamber. He evaded the lunge of the larger form, which still had not grasped how to check and channel its own inertia, and he ran for the shield, grabbed it up. His foeman stood foursquare once more and brought down the sword like a headsmanís axe. The uplifted shield saved him but sacrificed itself, shattering against the superior blade; nor could it prevent the raised arm beneath it from taking the edge of the sword.
††††††††††† Thongor knew his time must be near. He shook his head to scatter some of the blood that had sloshed into his eyes and looked toward the cylinder where the now calm form of the Mind Lord reposed. Had the mind of Tam Tavis collapsed as his body was about to? Or dared Thongor hope that he had made the adjustment, that perhaps he was discovering, as Thongor himself had, what new abilities were available to him?
††††††††††† ďI salute you, human! You have afforded me valuable exercise! For I must go in your form and in your name back into the world of men. With my knowledge of the science of the Children of the Fire Mist and the combined labors of your fellow humans to aid me like worker ants, I shall soon master this world and devise a means to return to my own, where I will at last gain revenge upon those who abandoned me on your primitive globe for my imagined crimes. You are indeed honored to have played a role in such a grand scheme, and I shall remember the sacrifice you are about to make.Ē Withal he lifted his sword for the final blow.
††††††††††† And delivered it. Blood and consciousness alike began to flee the young body, and Thongorís lone thought was that he should thus perish in the body of his friend, both murderer and victim.
5. Thongor Berserk!
††††††††††† Neither was the doomed ladís heroism quite at an end, for Thongor watched in astonishment as the failing young warrior managed to grasp one of the shield fragments and throw it unerringly at the head of his towering opponent, still bent over him gloating in his cheap triumph. Surprised fully as much as Thongor himself, the Mind Lord in his stolen body reeled with the impact of the blow, staggered, and fell oblivious. Thongor knew from experience that such mazing could not last long. If he were to make one last attempt it must be now! He concentrated till sweat would have poured from his brow, save that he had none. He felt again the sensation of running a desperate race, and all at once he awoke in his proper vessel, shaking off the momentary blackout.
††††††††††† Meantime the cylinder, under the mental control of the shapeless thing within, receded into the stalactite roof and the Mind Lord began to ooze toward freedom and renewed attack. Thongor felt again an eerie suction at his very soul. But he had learned a thing or two from his enemy and knew implicitly how to cast up a barrier against such invasion. Then, exulting to dwell once again where he belonged, he fell to the combat he had so long been denied.
††††††††††† He knew where to strike a human to kill him instantly. This was different, more like cutting and hacking at whipping sailcloth. But berserker rage kept him at the job till eventually only quivering fragments of the once-threatening mass remained scattered about the uneven floor. The warrior allowed himself a deep breath and noticed that he was not, as expected, covered with splashes of blood and ichor. He could not guess how the creature had lived nor yet precisely why his blows had been able to kill it. But Thongor did know well the entityís capacity to reintegrate itself. He used his dagger and the sharp-edged shards of the destroyed shield to tack the sundered pieces of the thing into the cavern floor and walls where thick growths of lichen and moss provided sufficient purchase.
††††††††††† Finally, having contrived a rudimentary harness, he hoisted the lifeless body of the young hero Tam Tavis back to the surface and began pushing the covering of jungle foliage down into the pit it had first concealed. When this was done, he cut more from the brush and dumped it down the hole. Lighting a dead tree branch he had discovered, he cast it down into the abyss and made away as quickly as he might, carrying the body of his friend, fleeing the ascending stench of alien flesh. As the sun broke the horizon again, Thongor gained his bearings. It was back to Shembis, where plenty of enemies awaited him, but where none of them bore his own face.†
Robert M Price
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