BEYOND THE WIZARD FOG
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The ship lay becalmed on the great river. Its sails were motionless, limp and heavy. Men sat on the oar benches, the oar-handles gripped in massive fists, waiting for the clang of the overseer’s hammer. Silence lay upon the Hyssop, as men turned their heads toward the great white fog that waited for them, spreading across the wide reaches of the waterway and up onto the land itself.
Niall of the Far Travels was uneasy. That uneasiness was a coldness down his spine, a restlessness in his every nerve. He stood leaning against the starboard railing, eyes seeking to pierce that shrouded whiteness which crept slowly but inexorably across the water and its shorelines.
They were three days out of Angalore, almost halfway to the great city of Urgrik, where he was to take service with Lurlyr Manakor who ruled those lands under his eagle banner. There should be no danger along the river Thalamar, ships plied its waters every day. There had been no word of trouble. Not so much as a rumor.
Yet danger lay ahead. A barbarian sell-sword out of Norumbria to the far north, almost an animal in his instincts, Niall scented that danger. He did not know what that trouble might be, yet it waited there for the ship and for all the men on it.
A shadow touched the railing. Edron Hobbort, who was captain of the Hyssop, stood scowling at his side. “I don’t like this. It smacks of magic.”
Niall shrugged. “Magic? Aye, it could be. Or warm clouds touching the land. I’ve seen fogs like that, here and there across the world where I’ve wandered.”
The captain eyed him respectfully. He had heard tales of this Niall of the Far Travelings in the alehouses back at Angalore, from men who had seen him in the palaces of the Kings of the South, or riding with the dreaded Swordsmen of Chandion, or even — so one old man had whispered — consorting with the demon-priests of Farfanoll at the Unmentionable Oasis which bestraddled the scarlet sands of the Inner Desert.
He seemed young for someone to have done all that, Edron Hobbort told himself. Yet there was a shadow in those gray eyes, a sensitivity on his sun-bronzed face, that told the captain this youth had been many places in his short lifetime, and had done many things.
He asked now, “What would you advise, Niall?”
“Turn back. I smell wizardry.”
Edron Hobbort scoffed. “There’s been no wizardry along this river for a thousand years. Except for Maylok, back there in Angalore and — you disposed of him.”
“There is magic here. I can almost smell it.”
“Come you to my cabin. I have charts of this river and its surrounding lands. Old charts and new charts. You can see for yourself.”
They made their way to the cabin and after Edron Hobbort had lighted an oil lamp and unrolled parchment scrolls, they bent above these scrolls and eyed them carefully. One after the other Niall discarded, until only one was left. This last one was very ancient, cracked and marred by Time, and it crackled as he unrolled it.
“There,” Niall said, jabbing his finger. “Those ruins…”
“…are only ruins,” scoffed the captain.
“Na, na. They’re more than a pile of rocks. There’s evil there, Edron Hobbort. Ancient evil.”
“Now, how can you know that?”
Niall straightened slowly. He tried to think, yet could not. Almost dazedly, he passed a hand across his broad brow. “I — cannot say. And yet — I know. It’s as if — something whispered into my mind. But it told me of an evil that has come recently to life, back across eons of Time — and made its home close by this river.”
Edron Hobbort snorted. “Nonsense. That ruin has been uninhabited since Porthia Malvia was queen in Angalore, and that’s about ten centuries ago. We’ll go on. If the sails won’t work, the oars will.”
He stalked from the cabin and Niall could hear him bellowing to the oarsmen, to the overseer, who began the beat with two bronze hammers in his hands that he banged upon the drum before him. Instantly the oars dipped, bit into the water, and Niall could feel the forward surge of the ship beneath his war-boots
He still leaned upon the table, his palms on that old parchment map. Yet, uneasiness was strong inside him, as though — as though some inner voice were warning him of danger. He shook himself, angrily. Was he turning into an old woman, to dread whatever lay ahead of him? Na, na! He was a warrior, a sell-sword. Had he not faced awesome dangers in the past? Was he to be fearful of a fog now?
Almost unconsciously he rolled up that parchment map and thrust it into its niche. Then he moved forward into thick grayness, saw that grayness creep across the deck to hide the rowers on their benches, the piled crates of goods being shipped northward from the lands of Korybia and Strumathis, the overseer, as he banged away on the timing drum. Even Edron Hobbort vanished.
And then those mists touched Niall.
He felt them sting his flesh, exposed where his mail hauberk and fur kaunake did not cover him. It stung his legs, naked above his fur-trimmed war-boots. He opened his lips to bellow his anger, for it seemed almost as if a thousand tiny teeth were biting at his skin.
The little bitings ceased.
Those gray clouds still surged about him, buffeting his flesh, blinding him, seeking to crawl down inside his throat — or so it seemed — yet there was a calmness in him, an acceptance of that fog as if it were known and recognized from long ago. From — another time.
Now where had that thought come from? Had he, in his far travels, come upon that name? He did not think so. He moved forward, to stand beside Edron Hobbort
The captain stood there, with legs apart, staring straight ahead. He did not turn when Niall touched his arm; he did not move. Niall drew back the hand that had nudged at the captain. His flesh had been cold. Cold! Now he peered more closely at his face and saw that his skin was white as the snows that cover the tip of the tallest mountain peaks in Norumbria in the dead of winter.
Niall put up his hand, passed it across those staring eyes. Edron Hobbort did not blink, did not turn aside his eyes. “Wizardry,” whispered the Northumbrian as he made his way down the coursier which ran between the banks of oarsmen.
Every oarsman was white as falling snow, as blind.
He made his way to the fore-deck and stood there with the wind blowing in his face, swirling the fog about him. It seemed that he could hear tiny voices in that fog, voices that cried out against him. Underfoot, he felt the forward surge of the Hyssop.
No wind bellied out the sail, no oar moved. Yet the ship moved on slowly, through those river-waters. Niall felt an iciness creep up his spine. He put his hand on Blood-drinker, his sword, and brought it out of the scabbard. He waited then, as the Hyssop moved slowly forward.
In time he saw gray stones, where a wharf had been, long ago. Here the mists were less, they did not shield what lay ahead as they had done. It was as though puffs of wind came up suddenly to disperse them. Or — as though someone had whispered a command!
When the ship bumped against the wharf-stones, Niall heard movement behind him. Skin crawling, he watched the oarsmen rise up from their benches, turn and begin to walk. He drew back, staring at those blank faces and empty eyes. He watched them leave the ship and walk onto the wharf and then along a broken causeway upward onto a hill.
When Edron Hobbort came toward him, Niall fell into step beside him. He sheathed his sword, he walked as the others walked, as though asleep or under a necromantic spell. Yet his eyes went this way and that, and he searched the fog for some foe that might attack.
Ahead of him he saw the stark lines of an old tower, the crumbling ruins of buildings that were a part of that tower. They stood stark and empty beneath the gray sky; there was a menace about them that made his flesh creep.
They came at last to what had been a courtyard in days long since forgotten, and there the men stood unmoving, as though awaiting a command. Niall did not stand with them, but where he saw the outlines of a door set between stone uprights, he moved toward it.
Beyond the doorway, there was no fog, only the empty desolation of the past. Niall walked swiftly, eagerly, and in time he came to a flight of stone steps leading downward. He took those steps, moving as warily as a wild beast.
From far ahead, he heard a cry.
It was a wail of utter terror, of hopelessness.
Niall ran. He fled down the steps and along a subterranean passageway, past many doors, until he saw pale light ahead of him. And now he could hear, mixed in with those wails, a harsh scrape of something on stone, and a fearful hissing.
He came to an opening, he stood before a vast chamber with a great opening in the floor, rimmed with stone. Hung in that opening was a girl, caught by chains dependent from the ceiling. Her long black hair fell toward the opening, she writhed and twisted in the manacles that held her by wrists and ankles.
Those chains were lowering her slowly into that pit.
Niall ran forward crying out. The girl heard him, turned her head, stared with disbelief at his mail-shirted body, at his long yellow hair, at the anger on his face.
When he came to the rim of that pit, he stared downward and cried out in horror. A mighty snake was coiled in the depths of that opening, its fanged head rising upward, jaws gaping. Niall could see a forked tongue, glittering white fangs, multi-faceted eyes.
“By Emelkartha herself!” he rasped.
“You can’t save me,” the girl wept, still struggling. “Nothing can!”
Niall felt his muscles tense. He crouched on the rim of that pit and his eyes went upward to the chains, saw them lowering the girl slowly. Slowly! It was as if whatever evil brain had put her there wanted that girl to know the agonies of approaching death long before death touched her.
Niall leaped outward, over the pit.
The huge snake hissed in fury, fangs glittering to catch him when he fell. His hands caught those chains, they slipped, and then they clung.
The snake lifted upward.
Only for a moment did Niall rest motionless, clinging to those chains. Then he was swinging them, pulling with his arms, pushing with his feet. Back and forth he swung them, toward one edge of the pit and then the other. He could hear the links rasping to that strain, he heard the pit-demon hiss in outraged fury.
The girl hung motionless in her manacles, staring upward at him.
Like a pendulum, Niall swung those chains. They were dropping him more swiftly now, soon that gigantic serpent would be able to reach the girl with its fangs. Whatever he was going to do — he must do soon!
He heard a link scrape on the stone rim. One more swing! His muscles bulged in arms and legs and back as he put all his weight, all his strength, into his swinging.
Then he leaped. With one hand he held the chains even as he swung outward toward the pit’s rim. His war-boots landed, scraped. He fell full length. But his hand still held a link, and the girl fell beside him onto the cold stones.
She sobbed, she wept with relief.
But they were not yet done with danger. Upward over the pit’s rim came the fanged wedge that was the serpent’s head. Niall cursed and yanked his steel free of its scabbard. With Blood-drinker naked in his hand he leaped to the edge of the pit, swung the sword.
Steel grated on a serpent’s tooth, snapped it. Instantly, even as the head was drawing back, Niall curved the aim of his blade, cut upward under the jaw of the massive snake. Through bone and sinew and flesh went the edge of his blade.
The reptile hissed. That hiss was a susurration of rage and fury, of pain and agony. It reverberated from wall to wall, from the bottom of the pit upward.
Forward lunged that bleeding head. Outward swept the forked tongue. The fangs glinted cruelly in the faint light of the chamber. Niall could see the brownish scales, which seemed like armor plate, tinted greenish, here and there, as that flat head darted toward him.
Niall swung Blood-drinker, drove it in an arc of bluish light straight for that head. Deep into the skull went the blade, the shock of the blow ran up Niall’s powerfully muscled arm into his shoulder.
The giant reptile hissed out its pain and anguish, its fury.
Bracing his thickly thewed legs, Niall tore the steel from its living bed. Yet in that moment he felt hate surge up about him, almost like a scarlet mantle: not his own hate, but that of another. It was a human hate, mingled with fear, and it shook him for a moment as he yanked free his steel and watched the skull-smitten reptile draw back, sink downward.
He whirled, sword in hand—
—yet there was no one there, only the girl who crouched naked on the stones of the flooring, half hiding her face behind a veil of fallen hair. His eyes went from her to the chamber in which he stood panting, blood and ichor dripping wetly from his sword-blade to the pavement.
“The wizard,” he muttered. “Who is the wizard behind all this?”
The head of the girl jerked up so that he could see her eyes through the spill of black hair, vivid and fearful, tinted a pale yellow.
“Ulkarion,” she whispered, and with her whisper a chill came into the air.
“Is that his name? The name of the warlock who inhabits this ancient pile of stone?”
He knelt beside her, lifting out his dagger and using it to pick the locks that held the manacles to her slender wrists. She shuddered away from him but he smiled at her.
“Na, na. There’s no reason to fear me, I’m just a traveler on my way to Urgrik. Something bemused my fellow travelers and—”
“But not you?” she asked wonderingly.
Niall frowned. “No, and that’s a strange thing. They all became like the living-dead, but whatever it was did that to them didn’t affect me at all.”
As the last manacle fell from her ankle, the woman rose up, proudly naked in the dim light, and raising her hands, parted her hair so that she could see him the more clearly. For his part, Niall did his own staring. She was beautiful, her black hair was almost like a robe that hid a part of her nakedness from his eyes, and her yellow eyes softened as they regarded him. Slowly she shook her head.
“We can never escape Ulkarion, you know,” she said softly. “He is a very potent wizard, he has searched for many years for this place.” Her hand rose, indicated the vast stones of the walls, the viper pit, the dark entrances that lead into this vast room.
Niall rose to stand beside her. “What can you know of this mage?”
She shrugged. “Ulkarion needs sacrifices for Sisstorississ, the snake-like god who dwells in labyrinthine hells far out in space. Long ago, Sisstorississ was worshiped here in Kor Magnon.” She caught the bewilderment in his eyes and smiled faintly.
“Kor Magnon is the name of this place where we stand. Long and long ago, it was the lair of a race of serpent-men who were worshipers of Sisstorississ. They stole human sacrifices to offer the snake-god, until the peoples of this region rose up and attacked it.
“Kor Magnon fell, everyone in it was put to death. From that day on, it has lain empty, abandoned, until all record of its location was forgotten. Yet Ulkarion searched for it, hampered only by the efforts of another wizard named Iphygia. Eventually, he defeated Iphygia and came here to worship Sisstorississ, so that the snake-god would make him powerful and almighty.”
The girl shrugged. “I was to have been the first sacrifice to Sisstorississ — until you came along. I — am grateful.”
Niall eyed her cautiously. “You know a lot about this magician.”
“I was hand-maiden to Iphygia. When he destroyed Iphygia, he captured me, Kathyla. I was to have been his first sacrifice to the snake-god.”
The Far Traveler grinned. “Looks to me as if he needs a new god. That one who came for you is dead. I clove in his brain.”
The girl shrugged. “That was only the manifestation of Sisstorississ. Sisstorississ himself is — beyond death. Nothing can kill him.”
“Then we’d better get out of here.”
“It’s no use. There is no escape.”
Niall shrugged. “Stay here if you want, then. I’m leaving.”
He moved toward one of the exits, black and yawning in the stone. Behind him the girl stirred, called, “Not that way, Traveler! That door leads to certain death. There is a trap door somewhere ahead of that walkway. If you put foot on it, the stone slab would turn and drop you into everlasting fire, into the very bowels of the planet.”
Niall turned; asked, “Then where?”
She ran ahead on bare feet toward a different adit. “Our only hope is by this way. It may take us to safety.”
He moved toward her, his eyes running up and down her bared legs, her hips, the tilted breasts half-hidden by her long black hair. “You seem to know a lot about this place.”
“My mistress — Iphygia — did her own research. She also wanted to find Kor Magnon and set herself up as priestess to Isstorississ. She failed. Yet I have talked with her about Kor Magnon and I know it almost as well as does Ulkarion.”
“Lead on, then.”
He followed her swaying haunches across the tiles and into a narrow tunnel-way Darkness closed in around them, for it was black as deepest space where they walked, and Niall could not even see the girl ahead of him, nor could he hear the footfalls of her feet. Yet his animal senses knew she walked ahead of him, proudly yet warily, and once he felt the brush of her hand, though only faintly, against his arm.
“Beware here, Traveler. There are hidden traps in all these corridors.”
He strode more warily, and after a time the walkway rose upward at an angle, before it turned suddenly and he could see the girl now, and also a round room with two doors at its far side.
She started forward and as she did, out of both of those entrances came a dozen liches — dead men clad in scraps of burial garments, wielding in their skeletoned hands rusted weapons that had been buried with them long ago — and as they caught sight of Niall and Kathyla, weird ululations broke from their skeletal throats.
The girl shrank back even as Niall leaped forward. Blood-drinker in a hand — not one of these mummified liches had blood, but that made no difference — he ran to meet them. They moved slowly, as though not yet aroused from the sleep of death, as though they still dreamed in the sepulchers in which they had been entombed.
Niall swung his sword, he ravened in among them with his steel always moving, slashing, darting. He was like an enraged panther in the fury of his fighting. Skulls rolled, clicking on the tiles, bony arms dropped where they were severed. In moments, those skeletal figures flopped and rolled across the floor, dismembered but still under the spell of some awful wizardry.
The Far Traveler paused, glancing about him. With his war-booted foot he kicked away a skull that sought to bite him, then tramped hard on a bony hand that still held a sword.
“Come along. There must be a way out of this hellhole, away from magicks such as this.”
The girl shook her head, smiling faintly. “There is no escape from Kor Magnon. Nor,” she added darkly, “from Ulkarion, either.”
“If he’s flesh and blood, he can die.”
Her slanted yellow eyes slid sideways at him, mockery in their depths. “Do you think you can defeat Ulkarion, barbarian?”
He shook his bloody sword at her. “If he’s human, he can die. If there’s a way, I’ll find it.”
She whispered, “Perhaps you can, at that.” Her hand lifted, she beckoned to him. “This way, now. If I remember the old scrolls, there should be safety down this passageway.”
They stepped over the still flopping forms of the liches and moved into a narrow tunnel which led upward. Niall still held Blood-drinker in a fist; at any moment he expected attack. He had no way of knowing how Ulkarion could trace their movements in these subterranean tunnels, but apparently he could. The attack of the liches seemed proof enough of that.
Upward they walked, with the girl leading the way. Once she paused, her hand held high. They listened, but even though they heard only the silence of these long-unused corridors, Niall tightened the grip of his hand on his sword-hilt.
He had no knowledge of how long he had been without sleep, but even his gigantic muscles were showing the effect of his constant walking, fighting. His eyes slid sideways at the girl. She had stumbled once or twice lately, he saw lines of tiredness on her face.
“We need sleep,” he muttered.
Her eyes were fearful as they turned toward him. “To sleep in Ulkarion’s lair is to die.”
“And if we don’t sleep, we die from exhaustion.”
She paused, thinking, “There is a place — mayhap. It is not far from here, off one of these corridors. There we may sleep a while, reasonably safe.”
Now Kathyla ran ahead, her black hair flying, and Niall trotted to keep up with her. Along two ramps they went, and then they came to a room off a short corridor, a room hung with arrases and drapes, quiet as a tomb, and almost as dark. Only a tiny candle which Kathyla found and lighted, enabled them to see.
The girl said, “You may sleep here, Niall. Without fear.”
She settled herself in a corner of the room and closed her eyes. Niall watched her a moment, shrugged, and lay down himself. In moments, he was asleep.
Later, Niall was to recall that he dreamed of Emelkartha the Evil, that demon-goddess whom he had known as Lylthia in Angalore, and whom he had followed into the halls of her Eleven Hells. She came to him in his dream, as lovely as he had remembered her, and she put her hands upon his closed eyes as downward she bent, to kiss him with her blood-red mouth, soft and fragrant. Niall stirred under that kiss, he strove to put his arms about her nakedness, to hold her to him.
He struggled, but he could not move.
Emelkartha ran her hand down his side, to where he kept the jewels she had given him when, as a shadow, she had freed him from the manacles with which Maylok’s warriors had fastened him, and later brought him into a strongroom and told him to take what jewels and gold he would. Niall protested, mumbling. Did Emelkartha want those gifts back?
The demon-woman laughed, and her merriment rang in his ears as his eyes snapped open.
Kathyla was crouched beside him, trying to open that pouch at his belt in which he carried those jewels. His hand stabbed downward, caught her wrist.
“What’s this?” he mumbled. “Robbery?”
She tried to free herself, but he was too strong. Kathyla stared at him with her yellow eyes, and for an instant — before her eyelids fell to cover those lemony eyes — Niall would have sworn he saw anger and stark fear in them. She tried to draw away from him, but his hand was like an iron band, holding her.
“Na, na, girl. Would you steal from me and run away?”
She shook her head, but her eyes still widened in that fright which seemed to grip her. “There is something about you — something I can sense — that terrified me.”
He laughed. “And do you think to discover the secret in my pouch?”
Niall put his hand into that leather pouch and lifted out a handful of the gems he had taken from Maylok’s strong-room. He held them on his palm so that the candlelight glittered on them.
To his amazement, Kathyla shrank back, averting her face.
“What’s this? Do you fear a few jewels?”
“Put them — away. I have seen — enough!”
Niall did as she bid, but his eyes rested on her averted face. He was curious. There was nothing so terrifying about a few rubies, diamonds and emeralds. What was there about them that so frightened the girl?
He rose to his feet, shook himself. “I know not how long we’ve slept, but it’s time to go. I have a hunger in me to see blue sky and green grass. I’ve been in these pits long enough.”
Kathyla rose also, but she hung back, away from him.
“Come along, if you don’t want to spend the rest of your life within these walls.”
He walked with swinging stride, his hand ever near his sword-hilt, his eyes searching the dark passages down which he strode. Behind him, Kathyla came at the trot, and he could hear her rather harsh breathing. What was it about him that so frightened the girl? Niall thought about other girls he had known in his travels, and could think of none that shrank away from him.
When they came to a branching corridor that led upward, Niall waited until the girl came up beside him. “This place is a labyrinth of walkways,” he grumbled. “I’ve been going upward, but I can see no way of escape.”
“We are near the subterranean dungeons of that building which served as Kor Magnon’s temple to Sisstorississ. Here were the victims fed to the snake-god, here the people of Kor Magnon worshiped that evil being.”
Niall nodded, putting a hand on her wrist, gripping it. “Good. Once inside that temple, we’ll find a way out of it.”
She shrank back, using her weight to hamper him. “It is the temple of the snake-god. There, Ulkarion will seek to rouse him from his far-off worlds, to bring him here to — destroy us!”
Niall scowled. He did not like this talk of demon-gods and warlocks. He was a warrior, a sell-sword, more used to fighting other men than battling with demons and their hell-inspired desires. Yet he understood that by going into that temple to Sisstorississ, they would be risking a confrontation with the serpent-demon. His broad shoulders shrugged.
He could not stay in these pits forever. Besides, he was growing hungry.
“Do what you like, girl. But I’m for the sunlight and some fresh air.”
He moved upward along the ramp and into a cellar where dampness and mildew glittered on every stone of the walls. It seemed that he could hear a thick chanting, which rose and fell in mesmeric harmony, though faint and very far, far away. Those rhythms seemed to seep inside his flesh.
Kathyla was there beside him, whimpering.
“Ulkarion is worshiping! He calls on Sisstorississ to rise upward from the lands where he dwells, to come here and greet his worshipers!”
“Now how can you know that?”
“I have studied the ancient scrolls, the forgotten writings of the ancients. As handmaiden to Iphygia, that is.”
“Perhaps now, while Ulkarion is busy, we can get away.”
“There is no escape,” Kathyla moaned, but she ran beside him on bare feet, sobbing softly to herself.
They turned a corner, they ran up worn steps hollowed out by the feet of long-dead men and women, they slid against walls wet with dew, they came at last to an archway. They peered in at a great altar of blue stone set beneath what seemed to be a round opening in the wall behind it. The wizard Ulkarion, in flowing robes of black and silver, stood with upraised arms before that black opening, chanting those words which had been old when the world was young.
Niall ran, with the girl beside him.
No one paid them any heed. The people who stood chanting in the great temple, Niall was with sickening revulsion, were as dead as the liches he had cut apart with Blood-drinker. They stood in their serements, the flesh shredding from their bones, eyeless sockets dark in the candles’ light, and the sound of their singing was as the wind whistling past a forest of gravestones.
But with that eerie chanting—
—there was another sound!
Very faint it was, as if it were coming from the depths of ancient earth itself. It moaned, it wept, it cried out with soft whispers that promised unknown delights and pleasures. Yet beneath that cacophony of sound there was laughter! As a man might laugh as he crushed an insect, as a monster might laugh as it prepared some fiendish torture for a helpless woman, so was that laughter.
Niall slid his sword out, yet there were drops of perspiration on his forehead. Whatever made those sounds — was coming closer! Closer!
Beside him, Kathyla moaned.
It came to Niall that the chanting in the temple had stopped, by now. He heard a whisper of sound and turned. The dead were also turning away from the altar, toward him and the girl. Their eye-sockets were empty, but it seemed they watched them.
Beyond them was Ulkarion, on the dais before the altar.
He was smiling cruelly and his arms were making strange gestures.
“Fools,” he shouted. “Fools! None can escape the vengeance of Sisstorississ! Behold — your doom!”
Niall whirled, sword up. He could see nothing as yet, nothing but the entry way of the temple, dark and ominous. Yet always the sound of those invisible voices — and that eerie laughter — grew louder, louder, until it drowned out every other sound.
And then he saw them.
They were gray in color, and they rotated swiftly, like tops with which some demonaic child might play. They were twice as tall as a man and there were so many they hid everything that was behind them. They came on slowly, twirling faster and faster, and here and there in all that grayness, it seemed that Niall could see glittering red eyes. Eyes that taunted, eyes that gloated!
“These are the demon-things that serve Sisstorississ! Spawned in the depths of some unknown hell, the serpent-god sets them free to do his will! We are lost, Niall — lost!”
“Not yet,” he growled, and lifted Blood-drinker.
He hurled himself at those eerie servitors. His bluish blade circled, swung. Through those gray bodies went his steel, and it seemed to him that where his steel touched them — green flames danced!
Something screamed. It was not a human voice, whatever made that sound. It seemed to come from far away, yet it pierced his ears, it reached deep into the soul of him, it fingered his nerve-ends. There was no pain, only an — awareness. Yet even as Niall swung his blade, he felt a numbness come upon his arms, his legs. He fought that numbness as he fought those twirling graynesses.
On the high altar, Ulkarion still chanted.
High and shrill were his chantings, filled with fright and worry. Never yet had Ulkarion summoned up the demon-god Sisstorississ, he knew only from his readings of ancient scrolls what Sisstorississ might do. He had no control over that awesome demon, he stood in no pentagram, he knew no words with which to control that which he had summoned up.
Yet as he watched, he grew more hopeful. For Niall was weakening. Aye! His sword-stroke were not as crisp, as sure. And where he faltered, those twirling imps surged in upon him, at times almost hiding him from Ulkarion’s straining eyes.
Niall raged. Were these things men, they would have fallen away before the sweep of his sword. Yet though some were damaged — he could see them lying on the flaggings — there were so many others they were all about him, touching him, weakening him, drawing his vital life force from his body.
He tottered, nearly falling, and he heard Kathyla scream in fright. He fought to put his back against a wall and used his blade to destroy those gray wraiths that swirled around him. But he could not keep on fighting. The mere touch of that grayness sapped his strength, weakened his muscles.
It grew harder to use his sword-arm, more and more of the twirling things darted in under his blade, touched him to weaken him still further. And now he heard the faint whisper of burial garments as the dead of Kor Magnon moved toward him, their bony hands outstretched.
Out of the corners of his eyes, Niall saw those dead things put their skeletal fingers on Kathyla. She screamed and fought them, but she did little more than tear a burial garment or shred a bit of rotting flesh from bone. They overcame her, lifted her into the air and held her there with skeletal fingers as the others came on toward Niall himself.
The Far Traveler rasped a curse as he sought to spring from the wall at his back and reach the girl. But the whirling gray imps had expected this, they swarmed upon him and where they touched he felt the sting of their grayness, weakened under it. Even as he weakened, the dead stretched out their arms and put their bony hands upon him.
He was lifted upward, still fighting. But now he fought as a babe might fight, weakly and without purpose. His right hand still clasped his sword but Blood-drinker was like a weight attached to his arm. He could not use it, it just hung there.
Like that, he and Kathyla were carried toward the blue stone altar.
The skeletal hands put them down, to stand before Ulkarion. The mage was rigid with triumph, it glittered from his eyes, it could be seen in the width of his smile.
“You die this day, both of you! You are my first gifts to mighty Sisstorississ! The woman for her beauty and her wisdom, the man for his strength and the might of his sword-arm!”
His black eyes studied Niall where he stood, upheld in his weakness by those many bony hands. Faint was Niall, and only dimly aware of what went on about him. Wizardry had sapped his muscles, turned them into water. He knew this, knew also there was no sense in fighting against it. If he was doomed, then he would meet death as bravely as he had in the past.
To one side of him, Kathyla was whimpering. She shuddered from moment to moment and on her forehead were beads of sweat that testified to her terror. Yet she was still beautiful, still lovely, with that black hair and those burning eyes, and her body — where the candle-flames’ light touched it — shone as enticing as ever.
Ulkarion stepped aside, gesturing.
Golden chains lay on the tiled floor, fastened to plates of gold screwed into rock. There were many such chains, but two in particular were foremost among the others, and it was toward these that the skeletal figures pushed them.
One by one, golden manacles were lifted, clamped to their wrists.
They stood chained, after a time, and were aware that Ulkarion walked around them, nodding his head and smiling.
“The victory is mine,” he said softly to the woman. “It is to my call that Sisstorississ shall come, and not to yours. You have had a few hours more of freedom, but that does not matter. The demon-god will come for you soon. You he will take first, and then this barbarian swordsman who has made himself your champion.”
The black eyes slid sideways, touched Niall, and in them was a faint shadow.
“As for you, sword-man, I do not know how you escaped the fog. No living thing is safe from it. Unless one receives aid from the gods.” His lips quirked into a mocking smile.
“Did you, swordsman? Have you invoked the protection of a god? But that I cannot believe! Who are you to have caught the fancy of some demonaic being? Pah! The mere thought is ridiculous.”
His gaze went to the length of Blood-drinker.
“A good weapon, that. I shall make it mine — after Sisstorississ has come for you. The demon-god has no need of swords.”
Niall eyed him coldly. Were he free, were his weakness gone from him, were those golden chains that bound him fallen from his wrists — ahh, then he would leap with his hands outstretched and his fingers would fasten in Ulkarion’s throat and the world would be without one more wizard. Something of this Ulkarion saw in his eyes, for he drew back suddenly, and his face was pale.
“Enough,” he rasped. “It is time for the Summoning.”
He turned, his black and silver cloak swinging wide. Upward went his arms, in invocation. His voice swelled, rose upwards, reverberated from wall to wall. As magicians had stood since the birth of Time, so stood Ulkarion and intoned his words and phrases, that formula which would unlock the barriers of space.
Niall listened, his body sick, his mind numbed.
Soon now, he supposed, Sisstorississ would come from the void where he dwelt, through the unimaginable abysses of deep space, to make his way to this adit which had been created by those who served him so many millennia ago. No man knew how old was this temple, this stronghold above the river Thalamar. Even the myths that surrounded it were old. Old!
He felt it first in his muscles. They seemed to gather strength, they seemed to swell, to harden, to band outward as they had always done. No longer was that weakness so rampant in him. His mind cleared, too, free at last of that paralyzing pall which held him in its grip.
The powerful fingers of his big right hand worked on his sword-hilt
Not yet, Niall. Oh, not yet, my warrior!
Shock held him frozen. That voice! Yet it had not been a voice, not as a human would understand a voice. It had spoken in his mind. But — with the sweet tones of Lylthia, whom he had met in Angalore! Lylthia — who was merely the human manifestation of Emelkartha the Evil!
Soft laughter filled his ears.
You remember, do you? Know then, that neither have I forgotten!
Niall stood bemused, only half believing what was happening. It was not like him to hear voices where there was no body to make them. Yet he knew that Emelkartha was close beside him. Emelkartha, who men named The Evil One, yet whose beauty was like a flame inside Niall of the Far Travels. It was she who had carried him to the threshold of her Eleven Hells, then sent him back to Angalore. It was she who had taken him in her arms, there in her Eleven Hells and kissed him as no woman had ever kissed him.
Aye, she had put her mark upon him!
He waited, every muscle tensing, and listened with half his mind to the somber chanting with which Ulkarion sought to summon Sisstorississ. The rest of his attention was concentrated on Emelkartha.
Why was she concerned with Kor Magnon? Or was she concerned only with her own safety? Could he care what happened here? Did the fact that Sisstorississ was emerging from his own dwelling space into the boundaries of Earth worry her?
“Why?” he whispered.
Inside him an anger was growing, very faint and small. It was as if some strange fury — a godlike rage — was deep in his innermost parts. He shook to hat fury, quivering like a hound at the end of a leash. His right hand clutched Blood-drinker.
Not yet, my love. There is a time to wait.
His muscles eased, yet he was ready.
Ulkarion had finished his chantings. He stood with upraised arms, his black and silver cloak hanging motionless from his shoulders. A silence grew upon that vast chamber where he stood, as though all creation held its breath.
Faintly and from far away, there came the sound of something slithering against the stone walls. The hackles on the back of Niall’s thickly thewed neck stood up. A faint reek of slime and corruption came to his nostrils and he tensed, there in his golden chains, waiting.
Ulkarion took a step backward. A shiver seemed to run through his body, so that his black and silver cloak rippled.
Beside Niall, Kathyla sobbed, eyes wide and staring.
Only that sound broke the funereal silence, as vast coils rasped and churned against cold stone. The coming of the snake-god grew louder with each moment, and now Niall could hear a distant hissing, rightful and unnerving.
Sisstorississ comes! Be ready, Niall of the Far Travels!
What could he do, linked as he was to these golden chains and manacles that held him prisoner to the floor? He shook those chains so that they rattled, and fought as if to tear them from the tiles to which they were riveted. Yet inside him that anger swelled upward, almost as if it were something alien, something foreign to his nature.
Closer that rasping came. Closer!
Now in the deeps of that black hole above the altar, Niall could see — a something. Red eyes, glittering with hate, with fury, glowed in that ebon darkness. Nearer they came, until now he could make out that herpetologic head covered with scales, win horns rising upward from the brow, the flickering tongue twice the size of a tall man.
That head filled the hole, slid through it.
Kathyla screamed, a throbbing ululation of utter terror. Even Ulkarion fell back a few paces, awed by the sight of that which he had summoned up. And Niall felt the fury rise up inside his flesh, until it seemed to choke him.
All eyes were on that awful head.
Only Niall noticed that a strangely greenish mist was rising up about him. It seemed to come from inside his body, stretching outward. Like a verdant smoke it rose about his chest — moved outward.
This is my power, Niall! Be not alarmed!
With awed eyes he watched that green fog slide about him, and where it touched the manacles on his wrists, it ate the gold. That gold it turned to powder, so that the powder fell away from him and his arm was free. In seconds, the other manacle was gone, as well.
Niall rose to his full height, shook himself.
Now, Niall! Strike for Emelkartha!
He leaped forward like an arrow released from the bowstring. One big hand hit Ulkarion, knocked him to one side. Onto that black altar he leaped, his sword held high, and like that arrow, he launched himself at Sisstorississ.
As he swung his blade, he saw that the green glow covered the blade. It touched the snake-head even as his steel clove through the scales on that head, drove deep into the brain-pan.
Sisstorississ wailed. In that wail was an agony beyond words, and a paroxysmic rage that seemed almost to shake the very altar on which Niall had planted his war-boots That vast mouth gaped wide, the red eyes flared hatred at the man who muscles bulged as he sought to tear his blade from that skull into which he had driven it.
The sword came free, glittering greenly.
Again Niall struck, and again.
Blood and a colorless ichor spewed forth, like a fountain shedding its waters. Where that blood and ichor touched, steam rose upward and a faint hissing. Drops fell on Niall, but he did not feel them for that verdant tint covered his entire body.
Twice more he struck before that titanic head was withdrawn, back inside the hole and out of sight. For an instant, Niall heard the scrape of scales against distant stone, and then there was only silence.
Sisstorississ has fled! The victory is yours, Niall!
He turned, his sword-blade dripping blood and ichor onto the top of the altar. He stared at Ulkarion who glared back at him disbelievingly. The arch-mage was shivering, but with fear or with anger, Niall did not know. Nor did he care.
He came down off the altar and moved toward the magician.
Ulkarion lifted his hands, began to make archaic symbols in the air. Niall felt a coldness touch him, but even as it did, he leaped, swinging Blood-drinker in a wide arc.
Ulkarion sought to turn, to flee.
Yet even as he did, the length of Blood-drinker swept at him, its steel edge honed to razor sharpness. Through meat and gristle, blood and bone, that edge drove — and Ulkarion’s head leaped from his shoulders and went flying through the air.
The body remained on its two feet for an instant, then collapsed.
As the body fell, so also did the dead bones and serments of the dead whom Ulkarion had raised from the grave to be his worshipers. There was a vast sigh throughout that chamber, and then a whisper of sound, a click or two as grave vestments and dried bones collapsed.
Niall found himself staring at a chamber empty of life, save for himself and Kathyla. The dead lay in heaps upon the tiles, and Ulkarion’s body rested lifeless at his feet. The girl was staring at him with wide eyes in which fright lurked with awe.
“You — drove Sisstorississ away,” she whispered.
“Not I. I had help from Emelkartha.” “The Evil One? The Mother of All Wickedness?”
Niall grinned. “She’s not so evil. I have the notion that she fights for that which she considers to belong to her. Or maybe it’s her pride. What difference does it make? She helped us, and I honor her for it.”
He moved toward her, reached for his dagger. He began to work the steel point against the golden rivets that held the manacles to Kathyla’s wrists. In time he loosed one, and then the other.
“We can go now. There’s nothing to keep us here.”
Kathyla glanced down at the dead body of Ulkarion. “He would have slain me,” she breathed. Her eyes lifted, touched Niall.
“Go you, Far Traveler. I will stay here in these ruins for a while.”
Niall eyed her wonderingly. “Now why should you stay here, Kathyla? The world’s out there, waiting for you, and this is a dead place, filled only with the dead.”
She shook her head. “Trust me, Niall.”
He shrugged and turned away. He walked toward the far end of the chamber, but it seemed that as he walked his body grew more tired, so that occasionally he stumbled. Once he paused to lean against a pillar, letting his head hang. His eyelids were so heavy! His brain so bemused! It was almost as if there were some sort of spell on him.
Now — he heard singing.
It was a chanting such as Ulkarion had made, and as he heard it, his very bones seemed to turn to water. His hand clung to the pillar against which he leaned, and his legs trembled. He could not move. He tried, but his muscles refused to listen to his mind.
Bare feet came running.
Kathyla stood before him, eyes glowing. “Fool,” she whispered. “Did you not suspect — when Ulkarion sought so hard to kill me?”
He eyed her dully. His brain was numb, but he remembered the manner in which this girl had shrunk away from him, the first time he had seen her, still in those chains. She had never touched him, or very lightly, nor had she permitted him to touch her. It was a puzzle, one he could not solve.
“I am not Kathyla, but — Iphygia! Aye, Iphygia the enchantress, the witch-woman, mortal foe of Ulkarion. He and I sought to come here to these old ruins, to what had been Kor Magnon. Ulkarion knew! And so he tried to slay me, to offer me up as sacrifice.”
Her lips smiled, but it was a cold and deadly smile.
“Ulkarion trapped me with his wizardry, would have given me to Sisstorississ, but for you. I owe you a favor for having saved me, for having rid me of Ulkarion.
“And yet — were I to favor you, I think you would find a way to slay me. And this must not be. For now Sisstorississ will serve — me! I will give you to him, to do with what he pleases. It will not be a nice death, Niall. The snake-god will be very angry with you.”
Her laughter rang out, mocking.
Deep inside himself, Niall felt again that hatred. He knew now it was not he who hated, but Emelkartha herself, whose demoniac powers were represented by that green cloud which had come from him. She waited now, deep inside some corner of his being, and he sensed that she was smiling even more cruelly than Iphygia.
He shook his head. “Do you think Emelkartha will let you kill me — when she stopped Ulkarion and drove Sisstorississ back into his far abodes?”
Iphygia stared at him. “What are you talking about.”
“Didn’t you see that green cloud that ate my manacles?”
She touched tongue-tip to lips. “I saw no cloud. I — didn’t see how you got free.” She shook herself. “Why bother talking to you? Turn around. I’ll put you back inside those chains and then summon up Sisstorississ once again.”
Emelkartha was stirring. Slowly she was expanding inside him, as once before she had lifted out of him and along his arms to shed his golden bonds and coat the blade of Blood-drinker. He could sense the hate, the fury in her. As she hated Sisstorississ and Ulkarion, now she hated Iphygia.
He could do nothing. He understood that, dimly. He was only a focal point for her power. As that verdant power grew within him, he lost his bemusement, his lassitude. He saw that green fire flow out of him, along his arms, covering his chest, his legs. And as it expanded, it drove out the magical spell under which Iphygia had placed him.
She did not see the verdant flame. Her expression was merely puzzled, for Niall was straightening, rising away from that pillar, and he was smiling down at her.
He raised his right arm. He held no weapon in his hand, but he could see that his arm was green, that it glowed. Iphygia stared at that arm, at the fingers of his extended hand.
From the tips of his fingers, tiny green balls fled outward. They touched Iphygia, ran over her like a malachite slime. And now Iphygia threw back her head and screamed. Agony was in that scream, and a deadly fear.
“No! Niall — save me!”
He cannot. You have offended me, Iphygia, you and Ulkarion! You would have brought back into being That-Which-Was-Conquered! For that, you must die!
Niall watched, unable to move, as that green tint ate at Iphygia. In moments it consumed her, as it had consumed the golden manacles. A bit of dust drifted to the floor, where she had been.
Go on, Niall of the Far Travels! My work here is done.
He stood alone in the ancient temple. A cool wind came off the river and moved through the halls, the vast chamber. Niall shook himself, touched the hilt of his sword, and walked past that which had been Iphygia.
In the outer courtyard, Edron Hobbort was stirring, as though rousing from a deep sleep. All about him his men were staring, looking this way and that. As Edron Hobbort caught sight of Niall, he came forward.
“What is this place? How came we here?” he asked.
“Wizardry. I’ll tell you of it, on the way to Urgrik.”
Yet as he followed Edron Hobbort and his men along the old causeway to their ship, he turned and stared back at those crumbling ruins. He thought of Emelkartha and her powers, and he told himself that he would sacrifice a fowl to her, once he came to Urgrik.
He owed her more than that, but what sort of gift could a mere man give — a goddess?