Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
She had been weeping, Kothar saw.
Her eyes were red, her smooth white cheeks, glistened with tears. She wore a white samite gown, rent down one side so that her pale thigh and hip showed through the opening. Her hair was long and brown, and her beauty was enough to make a man stare in awe.
“Philisia,” breathed the skeleton.
The woman raised her face, stared through her tears at Kothar and the dead Athalia her soft red mouth opened. She gasped.
“Are you victims of the demon, too?” she whimpered.
Kothar grunted, “I’m here to slay him.” Philisia looked at Athalia “I have heard of you, dead one. Men say you prowl the battlements howling out your fury against Azthamur.”
The skeleton was silent.
“Where is the demon?” asked Kothar.
“Coming, coming,” whimpered the woman with the long brown hair. “He is going to eat me. Tor Domnus gave me to him. I—I was the prince’s m-mistress. He tired of me and —“
She halted; whirled, putting a hand to her mouth. It sounded as if some great, scaled being was stepping on stones. Kothar tightened his grip on Frostfire. Then the thing was in the room and the barbarian stared at a monstrous thing that was a parody of humankind and—of a fish.
Glittering blue scales covered its body. Its mouth was huge, running the width of its fish-like features, set with double teeth at the top and bottom of its jaws. Its single eye was a brilliant blue and shone with evil laughter. Wide shoulders, also scaled, and long arms, with legs that bulged with muscles beneath the bluish-white scales, spoke of the raw power of this monster.
“What’s this? Another victim for my appetite?”
“Not so, Azthamur!” cried the skeletal woman. “This is the man who has come to slay you, as I have promised many times.”
The woman Philisia slipped past a small fire glowing in a ring of fire-stones, and moved to stand beside Kothar. “Save me, barbarian!” she breathed. “Save me and I belong to you.”
Kothar grinned mirthlessly. He had no need of a woman at the moment, he was too concerned with staying alive while Azthamur died. The fish-like creature was advancing on him steadily, arms by its side. Apparently he was counting on the fear that usually paralyzed the guards on the wall-walks when he came for them, to keep Kothar helpless.
The barbarian heaved up Frostfire. The steel flashed in the bluish light as he drove its edge at the neck of the creature.
A man would have lost his head before that savage blow. Azthamur grunted and reeled backward, respect showing in his large blue eye. The demon showed no blood, nor was its scaled flesh marred by so much as a scratch. Azthamur shook himself, then sprang forward.
Kothar met him with the point of his sword. It did not wound the fish-man but it slowed him. The barbarian drove the hilt of his blade into the demon’s face.
Then scaled arms were closing about him, lifting him off his feet. Kothar put the blade of his sword against the thickly thewed neck of the fish-man catching the flat of the blade in a hand. He pushed the edge of the sword against that thinly scaled throat with all his strength, until his back muscles were bulging out his chain-mail shirt.
“I’ll break your back, man!” snarled Azthamur. “I’ll leave you writhing helpless on the floor while I eat Philisia before your eyes—and when I’m hungry enough, I’ll start on you.”
“Foulness,” grated Kothar, applying more pressure.
Slowly he was bending the fish-head backward. Azthamur was grimacing with the effort of fighting the steel blade across his throat. If the demon maintained the bear’s hug of his long arms about the barbarian, then his neck would snap, sooner or later. Suddenly the thickly muscled arms loosened. Azthamur caught Kothar by a wrist, whirled him away. The Cumberian staggered, trying to regain his balance. Then the fish-man was upon him.
A scaled hand darted out, caught up the spear Kothar had dropped when Azthamur attacked. Spear held between his fingers, the demon leaped.
One single swing of Frostfire slashed the half of the spear. The point fell to clang on the stone floor. Yet the remnant of the long shaft rammed into the barbarian’s belly, knocking him backward.
As he fell, Kothar slashed again with Frostfire, hitting the demon on the side of the head and knocking him into a coffer of rare black pearls from the depths of the Outer Sea. Azthamur, stumbled, fell over the chest and rolled along the floor.
The barbarian righted his big body, stood a moment on widespread legs. He saw the gills of the fish-man opening and closing, just below his rib case on either side of his scaled body. By Dwalka, but the monster knew it was in a fight!
Kothar leaped, sword-point aiming at that long blue eye.
The demon was faster, twisting away, his scaled hand stabbing for a curved scimitar from the Southlands, bringing it down with a flash of blue light on steel. The scimitar drove sideways, ringing against the long, straight blade of the magic sword.
Curved blade and straight glinted in the pale azure light as demon fought with man. Kothar set himself for a battle to the death, knowing the odds against him. Azthamur might slay him with the scimitar. No matter how often and how hard he struck the demon, even the blue steel of Frostfire seemed unable to cut the demon scales.
For long moments, they fought. Philisia stood with the skeleton woman, hands clasped before her, brown eyes glowing as they watched the play of the steel blades. The skeleton made no sound, it waited with rigid back and high-held head, staring with empty eye-sockets at that one-sided duel.
It was Philisia who whimpered, “Look! Azthamur drives him back. Turn, man—run if you can. No living thing can defeat Azthamur!”
Kothar did not hear her. His every sense was attuned only to the clanging contact of the blades. Never had he fought like this, never before had there been no chance at all of victory for his sword, no matter what the odds he faced.
Against Azthamur, he fought vainly and without hope. Steel could not kill this monster. Nothing could do that. Nothing! Yet he fought on, sullenly yielding ground. He would not turn his back and run, as Philisia counseled. He would fight until the scimitar came drinking of his life’s blood, like the warrior he was.
Back, always backward, the demon pressed the man.
Now skeletal Athalia and the terrified Philisia were some distance away, and Kothar battled directly under the archway leading into the charnel caverns. Even his mighty muscles were tiring by this time, and Frostfire was a terrible weight in his right hand. It took more and more effort to swing his sword to meet the sweeping slashes of the scimitar.
“Rash human,” panted Azthamur. “I’ll enjoy eating you more than any meal I’ve ever tasted.”
“Kill me first, before you gloat!” Kothar rasped. “The killing will come soon. You are beaten.” The scimitar flashed and darted. It clanged against the hilt of the straight sword, it made Kothar skip and dance to its weaving patterns. Kothar told himself steel would never defeat Azthamur. There must be some other way.
He hurled his blade, leaped sideways. His hands went down, laid hold of a great rock tumbled among others on the cavern floor. His muscles creaked with strain but he got the rock up and above his head, and as the demon charged, he flung it.
The stone caught Azthamur on his scaled chest. Its sheer weight bowled him over so that he went backward to land on the stone floor with his spine. Before he could twist away, Kothar was on him.
A hand turned the demon. Kothar slid his forearms under the armpits of the fish-man. His hands met behind his neck, locked fingers. In this wrestling grip, he held the panting monster for a few seconds, bending his head forward with massive strength.
But Azthamur only laughed softly, half under his breath, and his demon muscles tightened and his arms came down against the arms of Kothar where the barbarian held him. Slowly, he broke that cunning grip, pressing down with his arms until Kothar grunted in the pain of the holding.
“Were I more demon now than man, you would have died in agony long ago,” Azthamur rasped. “But I have put on human guise, and that weakens my demoniac powers—just enough so that you can put up a good fight against me.”
“Enough that I can snap your neck!”
“Not so, man,” panted Azthamur, and broke the hold of the gripping fingers at his throat.
Kothar rolled away, the demon turning to come after him.
The pale light from the inner chamber was almost no light at all in these outer caverns. There was a sheen on the shallow waters, glinting bluely where those reflections were, and its sight made Kothar realize suddenly that in that water, the demon would be much like the fish.
As Azthamur came for him, the barbarian lifted a rock in his hand and drove it sideways at the face before him. He had aimed for the blue eye, but the demon ducked slightly and took the stone across its temple. Momentarily stunned, it was no match for an aroused Kothar battling savagely for his life.
He whirled Azthamur, tripped him with a foot. They fell together into the shallow waters, and as that wetness closed about him, Kothar sought once again for a hold on the thick neck of the fish-man. His fingers tightened on scaly flesh, sank deep.
Grimly, Kothar hung to his clasp on that throat. Azthamur needed air for his lungs, having assumed quasi-humanoid shape. The only way for him to get that air was through his windpipe. But the demon was far too strong for the merely human hands that held him.
Azthamur reared up, dripping water, dragging Kothar with him, and his fists slammed hard into his belly. The barbarian grunted. Each blow was like that of a sledgehammer in the hands of a strong man. His finger-grip loosed, fell away.
He let go his hold with a quickness that surprised the fish-man. Kothar dropped backward and his mightily thewed legs came up to clamp about the demon’s middle. Kothar heaved with all his body and Azthamur toppled forward into the water.
Like a cat, the barbarian shifted position. His legs inched higher, his hands stabbed toward the thick neck and tightened on the scaled flesh once again. With all his power, he held the fish-head below the surface of the rolling cave waters.
It was as the demon was bunching his back to throw him off that Kothar remembered a truth his adoptive father had told him once in a fishing smack out of Grondel Bay. A fish can drown in water, he had said. And Kothar blessed his memory as his legs inched further upward on that monstrous body until his thick thighs were clamped tight about the gills below the fish-man’s rib case.
The demon gulped in air and water, his head still below the surface. Not until his lungs were full of water that his gills could not pass out, did he realize the trick Kothar had played upon him.
Now indeed did his back arch and his muscles bulge as he fought desperately to free himself of that death-grip on his throat. But his lungs were taut with water, and he coughed fiercely underwater and every time he coughed, he swallowed more of the brackish liquid. Kothar kept his thighs clamped tight. His fingers were like stone as they sank deep into weakening throat muscles.
After a time, Azthamur quieted. But still the barbarian kept his grip. Not until the skeleton woman and Philisia came creeping through the cavern murk toward him did he realize that the demon might be dead. Slowly his fingers loosened; they ached with the strain of that terrible clasping. Azthamur never moved.
Kothar rose, to his feet, stood above the floating body. He panted and shivered in the aftermath of his battle. He reached down, caught the fish-body and yanked it upward onto the ooze-wet stones.
“Bind him,” breathed the skeletal woman. “No need for that. He’s dead.”
“Bind him, just the same,” she advised. Philisia ran with her hands filled with wire torn from a hanging ornament, and with this, Kothar knelt and bound the demon. When he was done, he stood and stared at Athalia and at the woman with the long brown hair who shivered in her torn court gown.
“Xixthur,” Kothar said. “I must find him.” The skeletal woman went and sat on a flat rock, knees together, bony jaw resting on equally bony knees, and she stared down at the motionless Azthamur with empty eye-sockets. The woman of flesh and blood crept closer to the barbarian and plucked at his fur cloak.
“Xixthur is not in the caves of Azthamur,” she breathed.
The barbarian whirled on her. “What’s this? Are you telling me I’m here on a fool’s errand?”
She smiled and shook her head. She was not as young a woman as he had thought from his first glimpse of her, Kothar realized; yet neither was she old. There were tiny lines at the corners of her eyes and a bitterness to the quirk of her lips that marked her as a woman who had seen sin and suffering, and was not untouched by them.
Her body was heavily curved, almost overripe with wanton fleshiness. The brown hair had come loose in the jeweled fastenings that had held it; it was this that made her seem younger. Parts of her gown were torn here and there so that the pale tints of her flesh gleamed in the rents.
“Where is Xixthur, then?” he asked. “In the apartments of Kylwyrren, the magician who serves Tor Domnus.”
Kothar picked up Frostfire from the floor where it had fallen in the fight and slid the blue blade back into its scabbard. “Then I will find Kylwyrren and take it away from him.”
Her smile was patient. “You would have to fight your way through half of Tor Domnus’s soldiers, man. I know a better way, up the hidden stairways that only I, of all the people in Urgal am well aware of.”
Kothar caught her arm. “Then lead the way, woman.”
He turned to stare back at Athalia, crouched above the motionless form of Azthamur. Well, her vengeance for the long-ago death of her lover was an accomplished thing, now. He would leave her here to gloat and enjoy her triumph.
Philisia walked ahead of him with sure steps, across the smooth stone floor of this chamber that had belonged to Azthamur and, parting a hanging drapery, slipped through and up a flight of narrow stone steps. Kothar followed on her heels.
“Why do you alone know this way?” he wondered.
“My father was castellan for Tor Domnus, before Tor Domnus saw my beauty and took me into his bed.” Philisia sighed. “My father objected, he did not want his daughter to be any man’s mistress, even to a prince. Tor Domnus ordered my father slain.”
She sighed. “Since then, I have hated the prince of Urgal, though I have continued to be his harlot. Until some nights ago when a trader out of Zoane in Sybaros carried in to him a blonde woman who caught Tor Domnus’s eye and roused his passions.
“Tor Domnus bought the woman.
“Me, he gave this night to the demon.” She turned and flashed a smile back at him. “You saved me from Azthamur, barbarian. Now I belong to you.”
Kothar growled, “I have no need for a woman, Philisia. My errand for Queen Candara demands that I travel alone.”
“You will not leave me here to be ravished by the soldiery? Or tortured to death to amuse Tor Domnus’s new bed-mate?”
The Cumberian rasped a curse. “You’ll have to keep up with me. I must flee like the wind once I lay hands on Xixthur.”
“I will ride with you, as fast or as slowly as you like. I am not a weak woman.” She slowed her upward progress, cautioning him with a waving hand. “Hush now. We approach the apartments where Kylwyrren dwells.”
They were in utter darkness. They stood on a flat landing so close that the barbarian could feel the soft body of the woman against his own. He felt her tremble, he put his thickly muscled arm about her slim middle, drew her closer to give her added courage.
Her warm hand pressed his. Then she was slipping from his grasp and fumbling in the ebon blackness. A narrow panel slid back, revealing the back of a brocade hanging. She breathed into his ear, “This is a wall in the apartments of the mage. Step carefully, and make no sound.”
She thrust aside the drapery and Kothar followed her into a stone chamber filled along its walls with shelves and cabinets that held the assorted impedimenta of a magician. Curious glass vials and Oddly shaped urns and jars contained the magical properties with which Kylwyrren worked his spells.
The chamber was lighted by a reflection from a lamp in another room. Philisia held her forefinger to her lips, then beckoned him. As noiselessly as a cat, Kothar went after her.
They paused before a round tower room, where a single lamp shed its radiance upon a squat metal thing, with eyes of glass here and there in its rounded bulk, which rested on three thin metal legs. It stood about two feet in height and was, perhaps, the ugliest thing that Kothar had ever seen.
His eyes went to a cadaverous man with dank black hair, clad in a robe embellished with silver threadings woven with the names of the thousand and three demons known to man. His elbows rested on his knees, his dark eyes, brooded on the metal object perched before him.
The barbarian scanned the mage more closely. There was no sign of a weapon close to the magician, nor did it seem that he could have a dagger hidden beneath his robes. Kothar drew a deep breath.
Kylwyrren must have heard him, for he turned and his bold eyes stared out from under tufted eyebrows at the man and woman, Philisia gave a little cry.
Kylwyrren said softly, “I would never have believed it.”
Philisia cried, “Tor Domnus gave me to Azthamur this night, Kylwyrren. This man from Cumberia saved my life.”
It was as if the magician had not heard her. “For ages, there have been legends. To our people, they were only that, like fairy tales made to interest little children. But—here before me is the proof.”
He swung back to the metal thing, slapped his hand against it. “The legends say that once the race, of men went to the stars, all the stars and to the planets around them. That once our universe was an expanding one, that the suns were flung outward into space by a single titanic blast of matter.
“Now the universe is old. Old!
“The star-suns are falling back upon themselves, back to that beginning of all Time and all Space. When they come together in a fantastic crash and gathering—together of all Matter—will the process begin all over again?”
Kothar listened without understanding. He knew the ways of a sword in his hand and the fury of a battle, the cry of the wolves along the frozen barrens of his homeland, but he knew nothing of stars and planets. His feet had burned in the desert sands, he was familiar with habits of hawk and eagle, deer and horse, but such things as Time and Space and Matter were unknown to him,
He rasped, “Is that Xixthur?”
The magician smiled in his bemusement. “Aye! This is Candara’s god, this gross thing of glass and metal. Early men made this, barbarian. Early men, with a knowledge of matter that no man today knows anything of. Even my magic might be weak beside their wisdom. I could never make such a thing as this.”
Philisia forgot her uneasiness to ask, “What is it?”
“Candara calls it a god. In a sense, I suppose it is. But I have read old manuscripts, ancient parchments that tell the legends of early men, and I know that it is a thing that gives off what early man called “rays.”
“These rays destroyed sick tissue in a human body, they killed germs, they repaired flesh and bone and muscle. Don’t ask me how. They did. I have not those ancient wisdoms. No wonder Candara grieves to lose it! No wonder she wants it back. This thing will give her eternal youth.”
“Eternal youth?” Philisia quavered, coming a step closer. “Will it give that to me too, Kylwyrren?”
“Assuredly. You see this tiny bit of metal? You move it so—“
Kothar saw the glass eyes in the metal hull glow with light, and heard the faint hum of the thing. The radiance from the eyes went everywhere, forming a kaleidoscope of red and blue and yellow throughout the chamber.
“—and somehow,” continued Kylwyrren,” the rays given off by this Xixthur repairs the ills of the human body and reinvigorates it, giving it strength and youth. I do not know whether it would make an old person young—my knowledge extends only so far—but I am positive it will keep a man or woman from aging any more.”
Philisia exclaimed, “Ohhh!”
Kothar moved forward, his hand on his sword-hilt. “I must take it away from you, magician. It belongs to Candara. She has sent me for it, to fetch it back to her.”
The magician nodded. “I expected some such attempt. So also does Tor Domnus. I am alone at the moment, but his soldiers patrol the halls and corridors. You can never hope to get away with it.”
“I must try.” The woman said softly, “He must bind and gag you, old man. We do not dare permit you to give the alarm.”
Kylwyrren nodded, sighing. “Yes, you must do that. I have served Tor Domnus for many years, but he is a hard taskmaster and I have no love for him. Why should I risk cold steel in my flesh?”
He stood up and turned, putting his skinny arms behind his back for their tying. Kothar made short work of the task, he caught the man and lowered him to the floor, and there he bound his ankles. Philisia placed a cloth between his teeth and her slender white fingers knotted the thong that held it in place.
In a moment, the barbarian had swept up Xixthur into the crook of an arm and turned to follow Philisia through the secret panel of the hidden doorway. She stood beside the drapery, half lifting it.
It was then that the arched door at the other end of the tower chamber opened. Alma came into the room, calling out the name of Kylwyrren. He was tall and broad of shoulder, with a hard face burned by desert sun and mountain wind. He wore a black velvet upon, and one black and one white velvet stocking on each leg. A dagger with a golden pommel hung by his hip.”
Kothar was across the room, the weight of Xixthur like cotton batting to his muscles. His fist swept up and around. It landed on the astounded face of the startled man and drove him backward through the doorway and out into the tower corridor.
The barbarian slammed the arched door shut, dropped a metal bar across two slots on either side. “That will keep them busy for a while, trying to breakdown the door.”
He ran for the hidden panel where Philisia stood, half-swooning in her terror. “That was Tor Domnus himself you hit,” she whimpered. “He will have us flayed alive for that!”
“Then run,” growled Kothar, catching her by a shoulder and whirling her around, pushing her through the narrow panel.
He went after her, waited while she closed the panel. Then she was before him, shivering and moaning in her fear, until his hand caught her shoulder and his fingers tightened. “Don’t be afraid,” he breathed. She went more surely down the stone stairs and along the floor of the chamber of the demon Azthamur. The skeletal woman was still sitting beside the unloving body of the fish-man and did not turn her head as they ran past.
“Where to now?” rasped the barbarian. “We can’t go up the stairs to the wall-walk. Tor Domnus has seen my face, knows I’m wearing his boar’s head uniform.”
Philisia shrank against him, shuddering. His arm went around her shoulders protectingly. “I d-don’t know,” she told him.
“Think! The demon must come and go a secret way. He would not show himself in the streets of Urgal, would he—when Tor Domnus sends him on an eerie errand?”
“No-no. He is never seen by the common people.”
He watched her thin brows settle into a thoughtful frown. Her tiny teeth nibbled at her lower lip and from time to time she sighed. Finally she shook her head.
“I’m sorry. I don’t remember any hidden way down this far in the caverns.”
Kothar stared around him at the wet stones and the shallow waters. He knew with that barbaric instinct that was so much a part of him that Azthamur came and went by secret ways to the castle and to Urgal. His stare was caught and held by the brackish water about his knees.
Azthamur was—or had been—a fish-man. What more likely means to travel in and out of his lair than by a water route? Somewhere in this cavern must be a subterranean stream that would carry Philisia and him safely out of Urgal.
He began to pad back and forth in the little pool, explaining his actions to the woman, who nodded her understanding. Holding her gown hip-high, she walked where he did not, slowly and with searching feet. Each of them knew that Tor Domnus was a raging maniac high above their heads, seeking entry into the tower rooms of Kylwyrren.
Yet the secret waterway eluded their eyes and their feet as they went from one end of the caves to the other. By now the prince of Urgal would be inside the tower, would have freed Kylwyrren and listened to his tale. Soldiers wearing the boar’s head uniform of Tor Domnus would soon be flooding these lower cellars.
And then Philisia went out of sight.