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Witch-Queen of Lemuria
Robert M. Price
Far above the rank foliage of the Kovian Jungle the great golden moon of Lemuria gazed like a cat's eye, as if tensing to leap upon the whole world as its prey. Far below, shut off from that illumination, one might have glimpsed tiny counterparts to the unblinking moon peering forth from between gigantic ferns and fronds. They were in fact predator's eyes, equally golden, equally cold with malevolence. Their owner poised stony-still as he waited. In a moment, a great bank of leaves and branches shook to announce the presence of a second figure, one who no doubt thought himself an expert woodsman whose passing could not be detected. He was self-deceived, and that deception was a fatal one. For here he came into the dusky clearing, looking rapidly around him for any sign of the recent passage of his intended quarry. But before he knew it, a limb behind him echoed with a sound like that of a sprung longbow as its occupant hurled himself off it and onto his doomed pursuer. The second man's eyes bulged as a new nose emerged between them, in fact the point of the knife with which Thongor of Valkarth had skewered his skull like a melon from behind.
Thongor, his full height and breadth revealed for anyone who might have been present to see him, now looked around for any more pursuers. He might have miscounted, but no. It appeared he had been successful in picking them off one by one during the previous hours. The huge man possessed both the power and the cool patience, not to mention the flowing black mane, of the jungle Vandar, the black lion of ancient Lemuria. His enemies, agents of Arzang Pome, petty tyrant of Shembis, had underestimated, gauging his powers by their familiar standards based on the prowess of civilized men. And the civilized soldier, even the city ruffian, was no match for the barbarian from beyond the Eiglophian Mountains, new these years to the cities of the East Lemurian plains since the massacre of his people--and the massacre he himself had staged in revenge.
Some of the men he had now slain had served under his own command when he rode in the service of the Sark of Shembis, running his errands until he had no more the stomach for it and joined the rebels against him. He was, ironically, all that remained of their band. As for his old companions, soldiers of Arzang Pome, Thongor felt the slightest pang at having to kill them, but his more serious dismay sprang from the fact that he had not trained them better. They died too easily, not that he felt like complaining much about it now. This man was the captain and had held out the longest. He also had the best arms of the whole troop, and Thongor paused long enough to appropriate his silver-pommeled broadsword. He knew he would soon be needing it, for there were predators hiding in this jungle who were far more fierce than himself, and whose malevolence toward him came from a purer, more elemental source: ceaseless hunger.
Legend had it that there had long ago been a thriving city somewhere in these jungles, but that some natural disaster had deprived the most voracious of the wild beasts of their accustomed game, leading them to seek out tasty human prey in unprecedented numbers. And for some unknown reason, the armed men of the city had proven too weak to drive back their threat. The fittest had survived, and it could not have been long till the jungle, spreading as fast as mold in this tropical humidity, engulfed the territory the men of the city had briefly borrowed from it. So completely had the old city, whose very name had been forgotten, disappeared, that no one now knew for sure where it had lain, or if it were even more than myth in the first place. Thongor did not seek it now, for he knew a fool's errand for a luxury too expensive when time and resources were so precious. But he was aware of a growingly urgent need to be out of here and farther away from the insane vengeance-lust of the peevish Arzang Pome, whom Thongor had played the fool once too often.
Hours had gone by now, hours in which the giant Valkarthan found himself no more hunted by human foes, but by every manner of jungle beast. The sword he had taken proved a valuable ally, and soon it had tasted the blood of more than one species of crafty snake, posing quietly as hanging vines until a victim drew close enough. Once he failed to recognize the true nature of one of these until it had made a first strike. A reptile had raked his skin with no apparent effect, no immediate effect anyway. Leaving the result in the hands of Father Gorm, his stormy Northern totem, he pressed on. It occurred to him that he might be the first to explore this particular expanse of the great Kovian rain forest, or that if anyone else held that honor, he had not survived to relate his discoveries.
More hours passed, he knew not how many, though he knew sunset could not be far off. He stopped and rubbed his eyes, fearing that he was the victim of a mirage, perhaps the result of a poison delirium. He thought he saw, not too far ahead, the outlines of a city, whether inhabited or a ruin, he could not tell at this distance. It seemed unlikely, because certainly its presence should be known. The unpleasant suspicion returned: perhaps it had been discovered before, but its discoverer never lived to return. But all such thoughts were fleeting, at once replaced by more urgent business.
His instincts, dulled by fatigue, failed to warn Thongor of the approach of an enemy, now repeating his own ambush earlier in the day. For out of the bush exploded a hurtling man-like form, attaching itself to Thongor like an iron slave collar. As the two massive forms struggled, turning, twisting, each closing a limb of the other in an adamantine lock whenever he got the chance, Thongor could get a better idea of who--or what--was trying to kill him. It was a great man-beast, his own brother-species, one of the most ancient Lemurian root-races. These creatures had for ages been losing ground to the more vigorous and intelligent nations of man and of the blue Rmoahal nomads. Now they were confined to the thickest recesses of the jungle as nature devolved them into ever closer conformity to their bestial brethren whom they more and more resembled. This particular creature, massively muscled in its torso and long arms, possessed a deadly set of clashing jaws which snarled to reveal rows of uneven, spiky tusks. It was covered with a mangy pelt of greenish brown, striped and mottled for camouflage. When he could face the thing, he saw that, like its brethren, the man-beast possessed a cranium larger than the common ape, and that its eyes were filled with a fury not lacking a glimmer of twisted intelligence of which its simian cousins were innocent. Ordinary apes were, of course, peaceful creatures; it took a dose of humanity to supply sadistic cruelty.
Once or twice, the Valkarthan managed to free himself for a moment, but he was tiring after endless hours of survival against man and animal. Again and again his foe would grip him in the vice of his deadly arms. Realizing, as a good tactician, that he could not match the strengths of the beast-man, he looked around desperately for an opportunity to bring other advantages into play. Glancing up, he saw it. In the crashing advance of his attacker, the simian juggernaut had broken off more than one limb jaggedly. Thongor's aim was still keen, and he knew his legs were longer and stronger than those of the ape-man, whose strength was all concentrated in its upper body. So, once the straining foes found themselves momentarily upright in their death-struggle, Thongor braced his feet foursquare beneath him, then crouched and sprang, carrying the two mighty forms upward with a sickening crunch, as the apish skull cracked open, impaled upon the jutting stave of its own inadvertent creation.
Both bodies fell to the ground. Thongor rebounded and, leaving the inert form of his defeated enemy to whatever carrion might fancy it, he turned in the direction of the city he had seen. If it were a mirage, it was a persistent one, for he saw it still. Dead tired now, he knew his only chance for surviving the night was to gain any sort of shelter amid the ruins, for such he now assumed them to be. But he overestimated his stamina. He took but a few plodding steps toward his goal, then collapsed heavily on the matted jungle floor.
2. City of Ghosts
Thongor of Valkarth awakened amid surroundings fully as alien to him as the steaming jungle had been, for now he was surrounded with silk and ivory in a chamber that looked to be fitted out for royalty. So close to the feral was his vitality that he passed at once into full alertness, though his head pounded like a slave galley drum. Unknown caring hands had cleansed him of the mire of sweat and jungle muck, not to mention the blood of a score of men and near-men. His shredded rags were gone, replaced by a new, or at least newly cleaned, tunic. He saw a pair of boots polished and ready, propped against the wall, his sword carefully set at their toes. This told him he was not a prisoner, but a guest. He was fortunate indeed, though, as time would show, perhaps not quite so fortunate as he thought.
He rose to a sitting position, the bed beneath him creaking. As Thongor sat, waiting for the drumming in his head to subside a bit, a figure superimposed itself against the doorway and entered. Having decided he was in no danger, the Valkarthan made no defensive move but merely gazed upon his host, if such he was, with curiosity. It was an old man, really a tottering skeleton of a man, who held out a foaming goblet to him.
"Drink, my friend! It should soothe your brow. You have been with me some days since I chanced upon you close to the edge of the city and brought you here." Given the size difference between the two men, as well as their respective ages, that could have been no easy task, thought Thongor. The old one continued, "I ventured a little further into the jungle and saw your handiwork with the accursed ape-man. This told me both that you deserved mercy and that you might in turn be able to help me. No, you mustn't try to speak now. Time enough for that later. Regather your strength first. Let me just tell you this: what brought you down was not the exertion of your battle, which astonishes me all the more, I confess. Rather it was the venom of some reptile you received somewhere along the way. Luckily, I knew how to treat it. You have been sleeping now for four days, and I think you will soon be fine. Now go back to sleep for a bit, young friend."
Thongor made to speak, both to thank his benefactor and to ask the first of a thousand questions. But he found himself already spinning backwards into slumber. The medicinal drink the old man had given him must have been a sleeping potion as well...
When Thongor next awoke, his pain was gone, and he felt marvelously refreshed. Tentatively he rose from the bed with its unaccustomed comfort and found that he was free of any wooziness. So he strode over to the curtained window and drew back the drape, though only just a little. He knew not what sight awaited him, nor that someone might not be watching him. But his first glimpse revealed nothing untoward. What he saw was a street two floors below him. At this hour, which he judged from the direction of the shadows, the wide avenues should have been busy with commerce and running messengers. It was not that the streets were empty, though. They were alive with the games of children, none that he saw being much over seven or eight years old. Then there were a few very old men and women sitting quietly upon benches, which seemed about all any of them had strength to do. But where were the younger adults? The middle-aged? None were in evidence. Thongor turned at the sound of someone entering behind him. It was the old man.
"I see you are better! That is good!"
"I owe you much, old man! How can I repay you? You might easily have left me to the beasts."
"I suspect they would have gotten to you before I did had you not already furnished them with ample carrion! As for me, I am Fendris Val, steward of our Sarkaja, the fair Bathoris."
Thongor glanced toward the window, saying, "She rules a strange city. It seems populated only by the very young and the very old!"
"Nay," the other replied, "all ages are represented here, though it is not at first obvious." These words seemed to promise an explanation, but none was forthcoming. "The city is named Xuthandis. You are in the royal palace, in my care, though your presence here is known only to myself and my most loyal slaves."
"I am in danger, then?"
"I fear that you are, or will soon be. I shall explain the nature of your peril, but I think you had best see for yourself, or you may not believe me." He beckoned, and Thongor followed him out of the room, pausing only to don the boots and to sheathe his sword. The two men, their shadows expanding and distorting crazily in the light of bracketed torches, padded silently down a long corridor along which slaves and armed men were posted, all quietly signaling or saluting the old steward. Soon they came to a halt before a faded, very ancient tapestry. On it were depicted the outlines of a white woman in golden robes gesturing welcome to a shadowy form, whose obscurity seemed not merely the result of fading. This the old man drew aside and motioned for Thongor to follow him into the secret passageway.
Here the smell of dampness and moldy fetor was choking, and the mounted lights struggled to dispel the gloom. Thongor thought he could make out a number of weapons, old swords, long and short, pikes, and others indistinguishable in the shadowy recess. They were piled, he surmised, against the need for sudden rebellion. Thongor was beginning to find the first pieces of a puzzle, but he had not yet sufficient to figure out the whole.
At length, his guide signaled to stop, and they stood before an odd contraption jutting from the wall. Tilted at odd angles were several highly polished silver mirrors, arranged in such a way that, provided the light in the room below were ample, one could see a reflection of what transpired in the Sarkaja's throne room. Thongor gazed in the mirror set at eye level. The image was far from perfect, but he could see the seated form of the sumptuously robed Sarkaja, and even from this distance her beauty was as unmistakable as her age seemed strangely indeterminate. She seemed to be awaiting someone's entrance. As her image seemed to perk up, so did Thongor.
Now her eyes passed swiftly among a line of captives brought in by strangely gaunt-looking guards. Thongor attributed the captives' meekness to some drugged state, and he wondered if they had been captured by some such subterfuge as well, because none of the grotesquely armored scarecrows visible below could have bested a single one of the chained men in fair combat.
The Sarkaja rose from her seat and casually inspected the line of men before her. In a moment she chose one and motioned for the guards to march the rest back out. As they turned to go, Thongor could get a better look at their harness and insignia, for only their weapons had been removed. With a start he recognized that these men belonged to the elite guard of Arzang Pome! He had, then, dispatched another party of searchers to find him when the first did not return with his head. Perhaps these men had better tracking skills than he had given them credit for, for all the good it had done them. Or perhaps they had just been set upon by the guardians of this place.
The old man was whispering to him: "Watch carefully, and do not cry out for surprise."
Below, a strange spectacle began to take shape. The Shemban soldier stood motionless, no doubt enchanted in some way, and the Sarkaja Bathoris dropped her robes in a heap, all in one motion, like a woman letting fall her bath towel. Thongor could hear the music of drums and flutes, the first savage and driving, the second eerily delicate and periodically fading. He knew the Sarkaja's musicians must be located in some alcove he could not see. But he could plainly see her fluid, serpentine motions as she danced the steps of some forgotten mating rite, tracing out designs on the bare stone floor underfoot and all around the unmoving man. None of this was completely unfamiliar to the Valkarthan; he had seen similar scenes in taverns, and even in the banquet halls of Shembis, when flute girls would execute exotic dances to please their drunken male audiences. But to see the Sarkaja, a royal personage, occupied in such an act seemed disturbing and degrading. Thongor sneered involuntarily, even though he could no more help feeling aroused by what he saw.
Thongor looked away and to the steward, but the latter directed him by a sharp gesture to keep watching, so he did. Now the Sarkaja had grabbed hold of the passive figure and started pulling his clothes off to match her own red-flushed nakedness. A robed figure, its true outline indiscernible, approached and wordlessly handed the Sarkaja a chip of powdery chalk. With this she proceeded to draw great hieroglyphic figures upon the blank canvas of her body. Then she cast the chalk away and clasped the man in a tight embrace, rubbing her body against his so as to transfer the mirror images of the signs decorating her own form. After this, a second robed form handed her a foaming goblet. She parted the soldier's lips with her fingers and began pouring what she could of the liquid down his throat. After a moment or two, she seemed to tap at the back of his head in a peculiar way, and the befuddled man spat the liquid back into a cup. Bathoris proceeded to drink from it.
And at this moment, Thongor concluded the weak light reflecting off warped mirror metal must be deceiving his eyes. For all of a sudden, down below, Arzang Pome's man collapsed to the stone floor, where he continued to...change. In a moment, he had somehow lost all bodily mass. He lay there like one of the scarecrows who had earlier marched him in. He was a living mummy, skin and bones. It was a moment before Thongor could wrest his eyes from the sight, horrified though he was by it. Glancing at the Sarkaja, reclining again upon her throne, the young barbarian was astonished to see that her form, too, had changed. Before he had been unsure of her age. She seemed a grand dame, full of regal hauteur, but her visage had seemed somehow uncertain to his eyes. Now she could be seen in much sharper relief, and her beauty was truly breathtaking. Nor could there be the least doubt of her vibrant youth. And she appreciated it most of all, as could be seen by her admiring examination of a hand mirror given her by one of the robed figures.
"We have seen enough," said Fendris Val.
3. Undying Princess of the Night
"She has battened upon our city and fed off our nation for untold ages," the old steward continued, having sat down again with Thongor in the latter's quarters. "As I child I heard the whispered tales, but I dismissed them as legends, stories to scare children into their beds. Even then there were perilously few young and strong past a certain age, but no adult would discuss the matter, and I assumed there was some disease at fault. As the tale has it, and I no longer doubt it, the Sarkaja Bathoris long ago learned from her scribes that they had discovered a set of hieroglyphs on the foundation walls of the temple when it was being refurbished. These glyphs seemed to tell of some god interdicted already in ancient times. Further digging and removal of whitewash disclosed more ritual texts, and in the end, the Sarkaja forced the chief priest to conduct a blasphemous rite of invocation. It was not fruitless, and the entity took the Sarkaja as his favorite. From that black bargain stems the shadow that smothers our city. She has but to draw renewed vitality from the young and vibrant, and her own youth and beauty are renewed."
Thongor had listened quietly. What he heard was outlandish, but he accepted it readily, pragmatist that his survival instinct forced him to be. After all, it solved a riddle, and that made it rational. "Thus the lack of able-bodied men from your streets. I had guessed the women were all sequestered, as is the manner of some cities. But now I understand. And your Sarkaja has grown thirsty indeed, I see."
"Yes, and long, long ago. It is with great difficulty that her advisers restrain her at all. She had depleted our strength already long centuries ago, if the legends are true. It is said that once the city Xuthandis stood upon a different site but that, when the beasts of the jungle began to close in, we lacked the strength to repel them. So instead, those with any remaining gumption fled and refounded the city here. And now we face the same danger, as the jungle has inexorably spread. But most likely it will never come to that, as Bathoris herself will sooner be the death of all of us. Each infusion of new life she takes rejuvenates her for a shorter and shorter period. And the younger the lives she siphons away, still less does each avail her. Our days are few."
Thongor mused. "She has fallen prey to a cruel addiction indeed, both for her part and for her victims."
"It is true, Thongor of Valkarth. I wish I could believe it all to be the fancy that it must sound to you!"
"But how much of the saga have you witnessed, Fendris Val? You appear to be among the oldest of her counselors, for all that she has resisted your voice of reason." Thongor spoke with the warmth of friendship, but also with the respect he would have accorded to any of his own tribal elders. But Fendris Val started with surprise, then laughed a phlegmy chuckle.
"Nay, nay! It is a good jest, though it is a joke on myself! I was once the consort of Bathoris! And not long ago! Why, I am little older than you! I think you can guess how I found the proof of the old legends."
A chill descended Thongor's spine. "And that was the day you began to plan her destruction? To take vengeance?"
"Not vengeance. Not really. More than that, I only wish that the children of Xuthandis might have a future. And this is where I think we might help each other. The Sarkaja knows you are somewhere in the city, thanks to her interrogation of the troops from Shembis who, as you surmised, came searching for you when their compatriots did not return. She has begun to feast upon their life-force, but it is you she is most interested in. I doubt not that you could escape her notice and return to the jungle. You could survive its dangers, as I have seen for myself. But I am hoping you might see fit to stay and find a way to rid us of this witch. We have a few men, what is left of them, and a few rusty swords, though I fear the men are rustier! Perhaps we might enlist the aid of the Shemban soldiers.
Thongor was momentarily silent, then: "Indeed I might have struck out into the jungle and left your city to its doom. But now you have as good as challenged me, and it would be dishonorable not to lend my aid. Consider me your ally, my friend!"
As Fendris Val extended his hand to clasp Thongor's, the bolted door splintered. Suddenly, sword and pike blades gathered out of nowhere at the two surprised throats, wielded by not by the spindle-shanked minions of the Sarkaja, but by the mesmerized troops of Arzang Pome who apparently continued their quest for Thongor's hide, only now in the forced service of Bathoris.
Throwing off his momentary surprise as if it were a cast dagger to be dodged, Thongor lunged backward, bringing up his arms, fist to fist, so as to scatter the weapons clustered in his face. His bronze wrist bands took some of the blade-edges, while droplets of blood sprayed off nicks and gouges he could not avoid. Back against the wall, he hoisted up the bedstead and used it as a shield as he drove the attacking party across the narrow confines of the chamber and against the opposite wall. Ready to leap through the open door, he turned to see how Fendris Val had fared, only to see one of the soldiers with a dagger against the old man's throat.
"Flee if you will, Thongor of Valkarth, but your senile friend will die." Still fairly confident he could escape, with so few able-bodied opponents to be found, Thongor mentally agreed to defer his flight until he could see to the safety of Fendris Val. He owed him at least that much. His foemen were now pulling themselves together and recovering from their undignified defeat. In a moment, they motioned him and Fendris Val to fall in line and accompany them.
Thongor scanned the features of his captors for familiar faces. Had he once commanded, at least served with, any of these men? Soon he was sure that he had shared a barracks with two or three of them. It probably meant that Arzang Pome had felt the need to send more experienced men after him once the first group failed.
"Chovis Than! Baktor Ganth! What are you doing, slaves to this witch? Don't you see? After me, you'll be next! Fools! Didn't you see what happened to your captain? You, Zad Zarvus! Don't you remember me?" He could not tell whether they were all magically stupefied, puppets under Bathoris' complete control, or simply too scared to appear civil with the enemy of their new mistress. Soon they were down the long case of wide, stone steps and turning into the throne room.
Thongor had expected to be kept waiting for the leisurely arrival of the monarch of this city of dwindling mannikins. But she was already seated on the throne before him, and with no pretense of royal dignity. There she sat, half-robed in the sheerest gauze, legs open at eye level as she sat above him on an upraised dais. The dais seemed to depict the likenesses of storm-crowned gods whose multiple hands supported the seated royalty. No doubt these were members of the abandoned pantheon of old Xuthandis. How they must chafe, Thongor imagined, at having to bear the burden of such a blasphemer as this witch-queen Bathoris! As for the Sarkaja herself, her flesh glistened with oil atop the lush red of her body, charged with surging vitality--and sexuality. He suspected there was more than one way in which she might drain the life from her hapless victims. Her eyes were slightly tilted, her cheekbones high. Her hair was raven black, her form voluptuous though tiny. She wore a tall tiara of solid electrum, towering to a fragile point high in the air above. Intricate golden rings depended from her earlobes, and a flashing jewel was set above and between her brows, symbolizing, he knew, the open Third Eye of esoteric science. And no one could deny that she had at any rate mastered knowledge unknown to the run of mankind.
4. Slaves of the Witch-Queen
"Come to me!" said a disembodied voice inside Thongor's mind. The rich lips of the goddess astide the throne before him did not move, as if fearing to disturb the perfect beauty of the mouth. "Come join with me, in body and soul! Am I not beautiful beyond dreaming?" And though he did not move a muscle, he seemed to be sitting beside her, though he could have sworn there was but a single seat upon the dais.
Thongor saw her delicate finger reach up and touch him on the forehead, between the brows, where her own jewel nested. Her touch was as soft as a dream. He felt that a new organ of sense, of vision, had opened. And from it a ray streamed out and scanned the world. She was showing him a vision of what was to come, of what might be if he leagued himself with her. He saw them riding victoriously side by side in the cab of an advancing chariot, receiving the homage of nation after nation, as each poured their treasures at the feat of Thongor and Bathoris, Sark and Sarkaja of the whole of Lemuria. After this, they would seek out other continents; then, with the aid of the science of an elder world whose black deity they served, other worlds would be their toys. Thongor felt the heady thrill of acclamations rising from tens of thousands of their subjects. He was dazzled by the sun reflecting off the helms and upraised swords of a million troops whose ranks went on and on farther than the eye could see. And upon his mighty shoulder rested the hand of a woman of unearthly beauty, the promise of fleshly delights more exalted than the spiritual flights of the yogis of the Lemurian forests. He said to her, "My love, I have conquered the world for you, and now I lay it at your feet! I trade it all for your kiss!"
A voice cried out, "Thongor!"
He awoke abruptly, shocked to see that he had climbed most of the steps to the dais and was about to kneel before Bathoris, all without conscious volition! What woke him was the strangled cry of an aged throat, the panic-cry of old Fendris Val. "Be not deceived! With such spells she enthralls all her victims! I know!" The sickening crack of a fist cut short the warning, but it had done its job. Thongor wheeled about, stunned, almost fell to the throne room floor as the guards raced toward him, albeit with some seeming intimidation. This fact was not lost on the Sarkaja. Her voice, ringing with rage and frustration, called out barbarous syllables that made the ears pop like a mountain climber's, as if she were bringing present another dimension and an atmosphere of near-tangible evil. She pointed a sceptre in the direction of one of the Shemban soldiers. He flinched as if struck, while Thongor stood still and watched.
The man's outlines seemed to blur and bloat for a moment, as if something inside him were gestating at impossible speed and sought a bloody exit. His eyes widened, then bulged. Thongor felt his gorge rising at the eerie sight. But then the man stopped his shuddering. Thongor's nape hairs tingled, his golden eyes widened, as he beheld the already masculine form of the warrior take on added bulk, height, and power. And this transformation was accompanied by others, less astonishing only because Thongor had just recently seen their like: the other men of Shembis shrank like grapes becoming raisins in the sun. It was as if the first soldier was the receptacle for the stolen vitality of the rest. Thongor knew well what he must do next.
Leaping the remaining steps to the flagged floor, he seized the nearest frightened guard and deprived him of his sword, a blade of familiar Shembis work and heft. He rushed the newly-created champion of the Sarkaja, designed to be his nemesis, he knew, and hoped to seize the advantage. But the man, despite the inevitable confusion of the moment, nicely parried Thongor's thrust. It meant that the fellow had absorbed what fighting instincts his compatriots possessed along with their physical strength. He would, then, be a real challenge.
For a time both men circled, first one, then the other, lunging in with a terrific stroke of the sword, each evading the death blow. They were well matched, and one could see how much the Sarkaja appreciated the fact as her admiring eyes drank in Thongor's power and skill. As old Fendris Val witnessed the struggle, he looked over to the throne, where his queen and onetime lover Bathoris hunched over with a lust and expectation that he knew too well had nothing to do with sexual passions.
Finally, Thongor's man overreached himself with a powerful launch that Thongor dodged, twisting as he did so, and pushing the hurtling figure to accelerate its onward plunge. The man crashed to the floor stunned, and Thongor kicked his clattering sword away. As his opponent raised himself, showing formidable powers of recovery, Thongor delivered a vicious kick to the jaw and rendered him unconscious. He disliked to kill the man, since he was but an unwilling minion of the demon Sarkaja. To be sure, he had been sent to capture Thongor, but the Valkarthan harbored little doubt that, once freed of Bathoris' baneful influence, the man should be glad to fight alongside Thongor. And with luck, it might yet come to that.
Catching his breath and willing it to return to normal, Thongor now turned to the throne to see the Sarkaja's next move, for there had to be one. From the vision she had caused him to see, he knew what her real intention was, as cleverly as she had sought to disguise it. She knew that for fresh vitality to sustain her, she must amass a force capable of pushing out of the half-ruined city of Xuthandis, through the Kovian Jungle, and then to sweep over Shembis, then Thurdis, Patanga, and eventually all Lemuria. As mad a plan as it was, she was certainly determined not to let it all end here.
She was fairly sputtering with rage now. "No mere man withstands me!" Thongor knew she was by no mans used to having her advances, her temptations, spurned. And that by "man" she meant not "male" but "mortal." She raved again in some language unknown to him, gesturing in peculiar patterns. The very air in the room appeared to waver as from heat distortion, though the temperature did not change appreciably. Thongor sensed that Bathoris was acting in desperation, that her last chance had come. She would risk all here and now for the sake of her mad scheme, a scheme that required his barbarian vitality as the spark to ignite a wildfire that should consume the world. Such fancies were idle as far as he was concerned. Whatever happened to him, the Sarkaja would soon be defeated by her own overweening greed that consumed every resource before it could be used. The Valkarthan harbored no grandiose thought that he might save a world. No, but the prize in the strange contest before him was precious enough: his own life!
Behind him he heard the stirring of his defeated opponent, the rasping of his battle harness on the floor as he rose. Thongor wheeled about to behold something far different than the massive figure he had bested by a lucky move or two. Now the figure was that of a titan, both taller and more massive than Thongor, indeed, nearly twice his size! Greater in stature even than the fabled eight-foot high Rmoahal giants of the western plains! And his eyes were filled with an alien malevolence that nonetheless seemed somehow familiar. And then he knew it for the fury he had seen in Bathoris' blazing eyes only moments before! He knew not what sort of trick this was, but it was moot. One thing mattered. Victory? Nay, survival!
It took training for men to be able to employ such muscular bulk for added speed; otherwise it served only to weigh a man down. But this giant moved like a Vandar! His right hand shot out and sent Thongor sprawling with only a back-handed blow. Striving to regather his wits before they scattered too far away, the Valkarthan ran forward to launch a flying kick to the other's abdomen. It knocked his foe back but did not seem even to wind him, such great protection did the mighty abdominal muscles provide. Thongor managed narrowly to avoid the next two blows his foe tried to hammer home. He very much doubted whether his skull could withstand the concussion if a single blow from those anvil-like fists landed true. Next Thongor sprang on top of him, rode his shoulders like a bull's. He covered the man's eyes, but could not bring himself to gouge them, a shameful tactic contrary to his rude code of honor. Deprived of sight in the meantime, the titan careened about the throne room seeking to dislodge the pest atop him. Crashing into the finely appointed furniture of the place, the pair of combatants reduced it mostly to matchwood, with the remaining attendants of the Sarkaja retreating like frightened rabbits. Their own frames were after all not even as sturdy as the splintering chairs and tables.
Thongor leaped from the great shoulders toward a ruined table, where he grabbed hold of a substantial-looking fragment, a leg crafted with much bulbous ornamentation. Climbing onto another table to gain height, he leaped toward his antagonist and brought the club down on his skull with as much force as he could muster. His expectation that the cranium should be crushed like a nut was confuted as shockingly as if the sun had neglected to rise in the morning. The sheer surprise struck him like a blow. He had succeeded only in opening up the scalp. The worst he had done was to cause the man-monster to pause and wipe the bloody sweat from his eyes. And Thongor took the moment to look around him for a better weapon. There had to be a sword within his reach! And he was right. In the confusion, more than one had been dropped here and there. He ran for one of these, aware from the corner of his eye that his nemesis was already in pursuit. Despite the weight of the long blade, Thongor was able to hurl it like a knife straight for the heart of his pursuer. The latter wore no armor capable of turning the projectile aside, but instead, he deflected the missile with a swipe of his arm. The sword clattered upon the floor.
A familiar voice called to him. "Thongor!" It was once again Fendris Val. Thongor risked turning his head in the old man's direction. He had succeeded in overwhelming the man who guarded him, both of them little better than fragile stick figures. And now he tossed Thongor the man's sword. Withal he shouted, "Here he comes! But he is not your foe!"
He certainly looked like Thongor's foe, as he rushed at him with blood-lust filling his huge and scowling face. The barbarian had learned quickly to dodge the charge of animals in the arena, and the same skills now bought him a few more moments of life. The man was already braking his speed and turning about. As he sought to plan his next maneuver, Thongor recalled his friend's words: "He is not your enemy!" He tried to banish them as a distraction, but then his next movement brought him in visual line with the throne of the devil-queen. With a start, Thongor beheld an astonishing sight! The Sarkaja, if this were indeed she, sagged listlessly on her throne, which now seemed positively to dwarf her proportions. Her eyelids were half lowered. More than this, her face was a mass of cracked wrinkles, her hair, once a perfumed mass of raven tresses, now resembled a rat's nest of yellowed white tufts. Of course! She had temporarily projected her stolen vitality into the fallen form of her champion. Thongor had managed to defeat him even when he was supplied with the strength of the men of Shembis. But she sought to augment that strength manifold by lending him her own reservoir of life-force.
Thongor bolted for the dais, the giant following on his heels. But Thongor had too much of a head start. He overshadowed the frail and cringing form of the Sarkaja Bathoris and swept her head away with one clean stroke of the sword. The blood did not so much spurt as bubble from the stump, and Thongor could have sworn it was not wholesome red but muddy brown in color.
But he had no time to study such details in case his antagonist should seek at once to avenge his mistress's death. He hopped to the floor again, behind the throne so as to put it between himself and his attacker. But when he faced in his direction, he saw that the great form had collapsed to the floor.
5. Revenge of the Beast-Men
Upon close examination, Thongor could see that another miracle had occurred; or rather the first had been undone. With the long-deferred death of Bathoris, the spells by which she had ravished the strength of her subjects had come to an end, too. While nothing would restore the dead of many ages of her treachery, those who remained subsisting as animated scarecrows now returned to whatever vigor they had once possessed. Thongor had the strange feeling he had been suddenly whisked away amid an entirely different set of individuals, for now, where once mere shadows of men shuffled fearfully, able-bodied men of youth and middle age faced him. All were possessed of the same wonder, for they had never thought to become themselves again. After a few moments of stunned silence, clean and joyful laughter filled the room, setting loose echoes of a kind not heard there for centuries. There were not many men left in Xuthandis, and most of those stood here, the remaining minions of the tyrant. The surviving soldiers of Shembis gratefully looked over their accustomed forms in happy disbelief. One was not so fortunate: the man whose strength had been twice magically augmented to fight against Thongor. He now lay dead in a pool of blood, his wounds having proven fatal once he returned to normal. This Thongor regretted, though it was not himself but the dead Sarkaja he blamed.
A stranger approached him. "Well done, Thongor of Valkarth!"
Thongor looked at him with puzzlement. "I confess I know you not, friend...?"
"I am not surprised! My name is known to you, though. I am Fendris Val!" The fleeting thought occurred to Thongor that the man standing before him might be the grandson of his benefactor; then he realized what had happened and pumped the hand, no longer veined and bony, with the great affection he had come to feel for him. "You see, my friend, I was not lying after all!" Both laughed great gales. Meanwhile the rest of the men had formed a circle about them. Thongor could see that the men of Arzang Pome bore him no more enmity.
Someone noted the absence from the company of a couple of the native Xuthandians and asked if anyone knew what had become of them. Another said, "They went to summon our women and children! Gods, I can hardly wait to see my wife's youthful form once more!"
At once a commotion was heard from the street outside. As the men ran toward the closest door, they all but stumbled into several women and children, some of them bloodied from an attack. More streamed in after them, mostly fine-looking women in threadbare, shapeless smocks, one or two carrying babies or tripping over youngsters huddling close in fear. Thongor turned to Fendris Val. "Who could be attacking?"
As they rushed through the door, the Xuthandian pointed, saying, "Who--or what?" It was the brutish ape-men of the jungle! They bore but the crudest weapons, sharp stakes and blunt rocks, but these made effective enough missiles as long as they struck home. And the instinct of the predator saw to it that most did. Thongor recognized these as belonging to the same type he had fought a few days before: they were striped and mottled with greenish body fur. The strange sight of them mounting an attack made Thongor think at once of the old stories of how the city had yielded to the depredations of jungle enemies. History, it seemed, was repeating itself before his eyes. But there was something a good deal stranger than that--the men-apes manifested a collective cleverness akin to strategy, and one hesitated to give them this much credit.
Thongor closed with one of the stinking, hirsute invaders and ran it through without difficulty. And before the simian eyes glazed over in death, the Valkarthan was sure he saw something... alien in the eyes. They looked sharply different from those of its kinsman whom Thongor had slain in the jungle. What they lacked in elemental fury they more than made up for in a kind of cold light that, while still not human, appeared to be somehow familiar. As he evaded the mad rush of another apish opponent, Thongor looked in his gimlet eyes and saw the same impossible spark of evil intelligence. And this time he knew where he had seen it: in the eyes of the Sarkaja!
The beast-men were not particularly difficult to kill as long as one had weapons. But there were so many of them advancing tirelessly! Thongor was now fighting beside the restored Fendris Val, the pair of them using a mounting heap of the reeking ape-carcasses for a measure of protection. Thongor noted how his friend fought without fatigue, as if so many years of unnatural enervation had been labor he now rejoiced to be freed from. His muscles sang like the steel he wielded.
"Thongor! Does it seem to you there is more method in this attack than the poor brains of these things could concoct? As if some outside agency were hurling them against us?"
"Aye, but who? The enchantments of the Sarkaja would have disappeared with her death, no?" said Thongor, punctuating his sentences with the screams of those he butchered methodically.
"I am starting to suspect that Bathoris herself may have been a puppet of another! Mayhap of that ancient devil-god she supplicated! I think it knows its servants have been vanquished, and that it lies in danger of retreating to the forgotten oblivion from which Bathoris rescued it!" Having caught his breath, Fendris Val resumed his own chopping, spitting out the rank blood and brains that spattered him more and more.
Thongor took advantage of a momentary lull as the simian forces regrouped. He made a quick count of the fallen defenders. They could afford precious few losses, but they had acquitted themselves surprisingly well for those just returned to the effective use of arms. Thongor thought for a moment and said to his comrade, "There must still be some tangible token of the demon's presence enabling it to survive the death of its priestess, at least for a while. The tide may soon turn against us. I am going to find the god. Gorm be with you!"
6. The Lair of the God
Thongor made for the throne room of the palace he had lately quitted, easily identifiable as it loomed above the common buildings. It was there she performed her conjurations, so it was there he would commence his search. The place was empty, save for the drifting dust of Bathoris herself. Thongor glanced about, then spotted a door behind the throne, the one no doubt through which Bathoris would have made her entrances, though she had already been seated when he was led before her. It lay open, and Thongor lost no time entering it once he had appropriated one of the torches ringing the chamber.
The torch light, leaping and jumping thanks to the cool, subterranean breeze that drifted through the tunnels, reflected in Thongor's golden eyes, causing them to seem to alternately blaze up and sink down. He slowed in his progress, despite the urgency of his task, once he noticed how the walls contained a series of large murals depicting both the previous history of the Sarkaja's vile deeds and the projection of her next ambitions. He felt his scalp prickle as he saw a stylized figure undeniably reminiscent of himself, even the very clothes he wore, aiding the queen in her planned conquests! But he dismissed this madness with a shake of his maned head and went on.
At last he made his way to an inner chamber, attracted by the echoes of drum and shrill flute he had earlier heard in the throne room. The musicians were nowhere in evidence, but their weird strains were nonetheless audible. The huge room contained no furniture, apparently because no one was supposed to linger here. There were more murals here, too, but something warned the barbarian not to look at them if he were to retain his sanity. At the far end, something jutted up from the floor, something made of huge chunks of onyx. As he approached it, he swore the music became louder, proceeding from no visible source. He expected some design to manifest itself as he circled the thing, but it was the image of nothing he had ever seen or imagined. The towering form lacked all symmetry. It did not even quite seem stable, though he was sure it must be solid. And deep within its ebon confines there seemed to be the illusion of a pulsing red light. As he tentatively held the torch away from the thing, the red spark became more definite. And something else: his mind began to fill with visions like those which possessed him momentarily back in the presence of Bathoris, dreams of his own future glory, of the splendor of his future reign over all men, of the great debt he should owe to this beneficent deity whose apostle he should become, in whose name he should spill oceans of blood, on whose altars he should smash the skulls of women and infants...
But here the sinister force inhabiting the black idol had miscalculated, despite its free run of Thongor's mind. He was no creature of blind and ruthless ambition as the Sarkaja had been. There was perhaps more nobility in the human breast than this loathsome entity could understand. And so Thongor turned away, shaking his pounding head to clear it of these nightmares. He looked at the base of the statue to see that it was merely resting flat on the ground and not set into the stones of the floor. Then he threw all his weight against it, not stopping even when he felt a queer cold, electric numbness beginning to spread from his shoulder toward his heart. Redoubling his efforts, he finally succeeded in toppling the heavy effigy, springing away as it shattered into fragments. The inner light of it had extinguished in that moment, as had the creeping paralysis he felt.
The ground beneath the Valkarthan began perceptibly to shake! He looked again at the inert fragments of the thing, confirming his memory that it had not been a weight-bearing pillar, had not even reached as far as the roof above. But somehow its collapse was unsettling the integrity of the place. He knew he had to move swiftly if he was to escape this last lingering vestige of the vengeance of the witch-queen and her shadow-god. The light from his torch whipped itself to extinction as he ran as fast as his legs would carry him, retracing his path to the surface. He was spurred on by the sounds of crashing masonry behind him. Regaining the portal to the throne room, he leaped through it just in time to avoid the fall of the tunnel's ceiling. His charge toward the gate of the palace carried him through the ashen remains of the dead Sarkaja, and when he gulped in the clean air outside the structure, he paused to shake this charnel dust from his boot soles.
Thongor could see the last escaping humans, both of Xuthandis and of Shembis, hastening over and around the scattered heaps of beast-men. Of these last, none living were to be seen. He guessed the last of them had broken and run a few minutes before, when the image of the ancient god had been destroyed, severing their link to the intelligence indwelling it. Thongor caught up with the shivering band of escapees near the fringe of the jungle just beyond the edge of the city, which was now rapidly becoming a heap of uninhabitable rubble as the collapse of the central palace set loose a general cascade of destruction.
That night the band of refugees sat feasting on a large stock of game the men had hunted in the jungle. The fires kept predators away, and the beast-men were smart enough to know not to trouble them again. Thongor, speaking around a mouthful of salty lizard flesh, asked the ranking officer of the party from Shembis what he thought best to do next. The man was an old compatriot of his, Zad Zarvus, who replied, "I've been talking with my men and with Fendris Val. Seems more women than men survive from Xuthandis, and none of us have wives back in Shembis, none that we care to return to anyway. Besides, we daren't show our faces there again, without your head on a pike, anyway. So we've decided to cast our lots together, maybe look for some quiet village to settle, where we'll never hear another word of conquest. Mayhap we'll start a settlement of our own! You'd be welcome to join us!"
Thongor reached over to clap the man on the shoulder. "You honor me, friend, but it is not time for me to settle anywhere. There is more of the world for me to see. And, who knows? Perhaps I may yet leave my mark upon it!"
Robert M Price
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