Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Five days later they rode to the top of a high hill and drew rein; thick mists covered the land below. Here and there a wind tossed about and the fogs parted to show black waters and breeze swayed reeds. Strange vegetation grew beside the reeds, pulpy flowers and thin stalks that waved oddly even when the wind died down.
These were the Doom-day Swamps, vast stretches of water and soft earth where strange beasts were reputed to dwell, and where men had been lost and never seen again unless some wayfarer chanced upon their skeletons.
They could not discover the island of Ikthoros, it was too well hidden by gray mists lying close above the waters. Kyrik rumbled a curse deep in his chest.
“We’ll have to find a boat, our horses can never cross that morass. They’d drown, and we along with them.”
He heeled the black stallion forward. He did not glance at Myrnis, and so did not see her body stiffen or her eyes change slowly to a brilliant emerald. Verdant with godlike life were those eyes, as though carved from the heart of a living jewel. Brilliant were those eyes, shining with iridescent lights for an instant; then their radiance dimmed, and Myrnis looked out of her ordinary green pupils again.
The girl shook herself, opened her lips to call to the warlock-warrior ahead of her, but did not. She rode with a puzzled frown on her pretty face, down to the water’s edge.
The banks of these swamp lands were soft loam, half water. The horses’ hooves sank into mushy grass and they snorted and drew back. The mists were thicker here, blowing about as if filled with avid mouths seeking to devour.
“By Illis of the soft breasts. This is a gloomy place,” muttered Kyrik as he came down out of the kak. “We’ll have to unsaddle and let them run free while we go on.”
“Without a boat?”
“There must be one somewhere near. The men of Kilgol sometimes fish these waters, those which are shallow where no big reptiles come. I’ll go look.”
“No need for that.” Myrnis stood up in the stirrups. Her arm rose; she pointed. “There to the north, beneath a tree.”
Kyrik gave her a curious glance, but he walked in that direction and came upon a shallow dugout fashioned from a log of kinna wood. His muscles bulged as he lifted and pushed it toward the water. Beneath it had been hidden two paddles.
The gypsy girl was at his side, stepping daintily into the dugout so it only swayed a little and soon was still. The warrior eased it out between the reeds, and swung himself into its bow. Myrnis crouched in the prow, dipping a paddle from time to time, her eyes scanning the mists ahead.
“To the left,” she called once, and again: “More to westward.”
Kyrik did not trouble his head about her directions. His keen eyes went between the tiny gaps in the mist even faster than hers. Yet when a certain note crept into her voice he followed her suggestions, and wondered at himself.
All about them were high swamp grasses, rustling against the keel and sides of the dugout. Rearing up out of the gray clouds they could make out a fen-tree, covered with foliage so dark a green it seemed almost black. It was a dismal place, this swamp, and the Tantagolian, who liked open spaces and a cool wind, moved uneasily as though he sensed evil lurking in the mists.
“What manner of man would build a temple in a place like this?” he wondered aloud, and Myrnis laughed softly.
“Once this swamp was lush land where good feeding grasses grew, part of the ancient kingdom of Surrillione, where Moforgon was worshiped. They held strange rites in his temple, they sacrificed beautiful virgins to the demon god. It was not a nice land, Surrillione, in those forgotten days.”
Her eyes were bright as starlight again, but Kyrik did not notice, for her face was turned from him as she watched the waterways ahead. She spoke softly, in a voice more melodious than Myrnis’ own, and it was the voice that stiffened his spine.
“You sound like . . . He shook himself against the notion that had come into his head. He knew that voice, its inflections; he had heard it often enough. In his long ago life, before the spell had been put upon him, he had worshiped the goddess Illis. And short months ago she had come to life for him, to help him defeat Devadonides and slay the demon Absothoth.
His hand reached out, caught the girl, swung her about. Myrnis turned a surprised face to him, eyebrows arched questioningly.
“What is it?” she asked. He was dreaming. It was not Illis who sat in this dugout with him, but a Romany girl. He said, “A notion I had. It’s nothing. I wondered how you knew about Surrillione.”
Myrnis frowned. “It was something I heard, I don’t remember where or when. But it’s true enough.”
She turned back to her paddling, and from time to time the warlock-warrior cast dubious looks at her. He was not satisfied with her answer; no mere gypsy knows the ancient history of this land, he told himself. But what he was beginning to suspect was—nonsense.
For more than two hours they paddled between the islets of coarse grass and queerly swollen flowers, with the black waters gurgling at their sides. They were silent now, Kyrik wondering what he was going to do with the bells of Salmalinda once he laid hands on them, but determined they should at least fetch the price of a gravestone for old Endole. Myrnis sat dreaming, idly moving the paddle. No living thing could have guessed at her thoughts.
For her eyes once more held that emerald brilliance as they looked on scenes out of an eon-old past and not these misty marshes through which they slid. There was a waxen pallor to her flesh, she had lost her sun-tanned look when she dwelt on the visions of the goddess Illis.
In time, the shape of a small island, once a hilltop, loomed through the fog. And with the sight of the island came also a view of the shattered marble blocks and a few still-standing pillars of the ancient temple to Moforgon.
The ruin brooded in this silent place, the frieze-work of its lintels still resting on the fallen columns and broken shards that formed its portico. On the mosaic tile floor, dread Moforgon was limned in colors deepened by age. Stark and majestic even in its desolation, it stood against the green grass and the black swamp waters with a grim splendor.
The gypsy girl was first out of the dugout, taking a few steps on the firm ground as if to assure herself of its safety, breathing deeply of the air, moving here and there. Her eyes dreamed, as if refreshing old memories by drawing the ruins into her eyes.
Kyrik came after her, tugging his scabbard in front of him so its hilt lay ready to his huge hand. He scowled, not liking this eerie quiet, this sense of the past still brooding here, menacing and dangerous.
“Now where in the name of Illis of the tinted toenails would the bells of Salmalinda be hidden in this place?”
“Below,” Myrnis whispered.
“In the crypt.” The warlock-warrior gave her a dubious glance but he stamped forward, the girl moving gracefully behind. Shattered fragments of flat stone lay half buried in the grass where once had been a walkway to the temple. Broken bits of stone and marble showed traces of statued border. Now only island grass grew there, half covering the stones.
They went onto what had been the portico and through an opening where doors had hung. Inside the temple proper the atmosphere was misty and utterly silent. At the far end of the nave in the cella, the altar still rested, of white marble stained with the faded blood of many victims.
Kyrik grunted, shifting his shoulders.
“I like not this place, it smells too much of evil,” he grumbled, his eyes moving around.
“The evil is long gone, dead along with the land of Surrillione that sheltered it. Nothing now remains save these stones—and the bells of Salmalinda.”
Kyrik stared at her, then shrugged. They moved toward the altar. Myrnis smiled down at it, emerald eyes glowing, and ran her fingertips along the surface. “There is a secret in this altar, Kyrik. It slides back when—ahhh!”
Her fingers gripped the ornaments, turned them. A faint rumbling sound reached their ears from far below, then the altar swung back and sideways to reveal a flight of stone steps leading into blackness.
Kyrik moved Myrnis out of the way. “I don’t know how you knew about this, girl, nor will I ask as yet. But stand aside. I’ll go first down there. Snakes and lizards sometimes inhabit old ruins such as this.”
Bluefang came out of the scabbard into his hand. gray light touched the shimmering blade. The warrior put his furred boots on a worn tread, moved down the steps with the gypsy girl swiftly following. The sun’s rays could not penetrate the mists, yet there was light in the stone crypt below. The blackness that had been in the vault gave way slowly to this dim light, as if the air that rushed into it with the shifting of the altar contained particles of light.
But no. It was not the air that held this radiance, but—
The bells of Salmalinda! The Tantagolian stood motionless on the last step, his eyes riveted to a dozen silver bells hung on a golden framework. The thing was unbelievably beautiful, the wires of that framework were twisted into spirals by some long-forgotten master goldsmith, into a configuration. that caught the heart with its loveliness. Where the wires formed small circles, the silver bells were hung.
A breeze moved into the vault. The bells quivered, their tiny clappers swung, and soft music filled the air. Kyrik felt something inside him respond to that faery tinkling, whispering of strange places and lovely women, of treasures vast beyond compare and a pleasure far exceeding the imageries of men.
“Illis,” he breathed, awed. “The bells of Salmalinda,” nodded Myrnis, resting a hand on his shoulder. “One of the ancient treasures of Terra, long lost and forgotten by mankind except in the stuff of legends.”
“I could listen to them forever.”
“No! That way lies madness. Their music is not for human ears, Kyrik of the Victories. They were created for demonic ears, those sounds and music. Go swiftly. Take them and wrap them in your cloak so their tinklings will be stilled.”
He reached for his worn chlamys, loosed its clasps. With the cloak wrapped about his hand and arm, he moved forward.
It was the only thing that saved his life. Out of the darker shadows in a corner of the crypt came a many-fanged horror, towering on a sinuous thick coil covered with glittering pearl-and-green scales, mouth gaping wide. An ordinary man would have died as that snake’s head struck with blinding speed. But Kyrik had lived his days with danger. He was a warlock and a warrior, a king who had led his legions to victory after victory, always in the forefront of the fighting, his instincts those of a wild animal.
He leaped and swung up his cloaked arm as fangs tore into the scarlet cloth, shredding it. As though it had sensed failure, the great reptile uncoiled its length and swung a whipping tail toward Kyrik.
“Illis aid me,” he breathed, and his sword came up.
He swung with all the fury of muscles developed in a thousand battles. The snake was lashing out at him, seeking to wrap its thick trunk about his body and crush the life from it. Bluefang clove the air, touched the pearl-and-green reptilian scales, bit into them.
The snake hissed in pain and fury. Its flat head darted, jaws wide. Kyrik turned the edge of Bluefang, whipping up the blue blade. Long fangs met steel as he parried that wide mouth, much as he might turn aside another blade. The reptile bit down, a fang snapped on the hard steel.
Myrnis cried out softly.
The tail whipped about Kyrik, coiling around his legs. He tottered, off balance. In moments, he would be unable to swing his blade as the creature gathered itself to entwine of its body about the man.
The warrior snarled in his battle lust.
He put out a hand, caught a long fang in his fist. Snake and man fought almost silently, the snake hissing and the Tantagolian grunting, striving to keep that poisonous fang from penetrating his flesh.
For an instant the snake forgot it had been trying to wrap around the man. Its head jerked back, it writhed to free that deadly fang. And Kyrik was swung half off his feet by the mighty muscles rippling under its smooth, shiny scales.
But he had not forgotten Bluefang. Steadily he gathered strength, raising the blue blade behind him until it was high over his head. Then, using the fang to which he still clung as a lever, he pushed back and away, half stumbling as the coils trapped his ankles. Recovering his balance he swung the blade downward, a blue blur in the gray light.
The keen edge slammed into that hard, flat head. Scales split, broke apart. Red flesh showed. A frothy ichor sprayed upward into the air.
Myrnis stood frozen, watching the terrible conflict. Her emerald eyes were glowing, her skin pale as ivory. Pity and sympathy were graven on her face, as though the goddess in her body felt powerless to aid the man. Her features seemed almost to say: Against that thing of demonry, I am helpless. This battle you must win by yourself, Kyrik!
Just for a moment the coils loosed about the warrior, and so swift were his reflexes that he leaped four feet away. Bluefang glittered as the blade clove into the snake, its edge slashing deep into a coil.
The snake’s flesh gaped open, spewing ichor high and sideways, deluging the Tantagolian as he fought to wrest his blade from deep inside.
Kyrik grunted in sheer agony as that frothy shower bit deep into his skin. It ate into his flesh like acid, bathing him with pain. He strained every muscle of his great body, yanking out the steel like a cork from a bottle, and the liquid inside the reptile gushed out.
For a moment he stood motionless, his face and the skin of his bare, mighty arm smoking from the stinging ichor. Then his sightless eyes stared ceiling-ward.
Kyrik bellowed like a mightily wounded bull.